The centenary of the outbreak of World War One has informed all the arts in 2014, from TV dramas and literature to radio documentaries. But nowhere, so far, have I seen the subject so imaginatively honoured than in Heartbreak Production’s inspired production of Macbeth, which transfers the notorious drama of power and bloodshed from the Medieval moors of Scotland to the battlefields and hospitals of the Western Front.
Currently touring the country, the company assembled in the lush grounds of Wimpole Hall on 1 August – the perfect backdrop for their smart, witty play within a play, which invites audiences into a rehabilitation hospital, where officers are staging a production of The Scottish Play.
After an entertaining variety show-style introduction, in which the unwittingly unfunny Major Harvey is hurried off stage by a smiling Nurse Jones, their production begins in earnest.
The Great War theme works surprisingly well, with the weird sisters (three floating, cackling gas masks) emerging from a cloud of poison gas, air-raid sirens standing in for tolling bells and Macbeth’s hallucinations and paranoia seemingly symptoms of shell shock. The lament of Lady Macduff, on hearing of her husband’s departure to war, serves as another clear echo of the generation of women left behind early last century to fretfully await news of their conscripted men.
Just four talented actors take all the parts, with Aimee Powell giving an impassioned performance as the power-hungry Lady Macbeth and James Edwards adding a touch of the General Melchet to his jolly King Duncan.
The play’s emotional twists and turns are expertly played; raising us to laughter with the porter’s interactive comic routine at one moment then reducing the entire audience to stunned silence at the brutal murder of Lady Macduff and her children.
With all its shadowy deeds and beautiful nocturnal imagery, Macbeth – which takes place mostly under cover of darkness – lends itself perfectly to an outdoor setting. As night closes in around our evergreen amphitheatre the atmosphere intensifies: insects cast dancing shadows in the footlights, an owl shrieks and surly clouds roll overhead. There’s an immediacy and unpredictability about open-air theatre (luckily the rain stays off tonight) and a collective smile goes round at the comic timing of a noisy flock of geese who interrupt a particularly passionate kiss.
The company also make the most of having their audience within touching distance, gathered as we are on three sides of their portable set. Picnics are pinched, volunteers are plucked for a dance or to help with a scene change and, disturbingly for those close to, Banquo’s ghost appears and disappears to great effect from amongst the crowds, laced in red ribbons for blood and pointing in silent accusation.
Brilliantly updated and thrilling throughout, Heartbreak Theatre’s Macbeth is outdoor theatre at its very best.
:: Macbeth continues in Leeds, Nottingham and Manchester (full list of venues online), but Heartbreak return to Wimpole with Peter Pan and the Lost Boys on 29 August, tickets £14 adults, £10 children (£46 family ticket).