Those of us who know Willophobia - a debilitating condition resulting directly from prolonged exposure to non-consensual pre-adolescent textual analysis - are all too familiar with the quasi-catatonic cerebral paralysis induced by voiced Shakespeare.
Which is why we must cherish Northern Broadsides. Quite apart from being almost the only ensemble company left in the UK (which, given its enlightened policy of regularly re-visiting the same pool of actors, brings it close to being a permanent company - and all the better for it), Barrie Rutter's troupe is the perfect antidote to badly taught Shakespeare. You don't get the reverence, and arguably, you don't get the depth of psychological probing that the posher houses offer. You don't get the scenic frills or the eccentric new perspectives on text either.
What you get instead is superb clarity, exemplary pace and physically vigorous story-telling. Shakespeare is suddenly gloriously accessible. (The "northern voice" of which Rutter used to speak, and which made potential audiences wary of "the Bard in broad Yorkshire", is no longer an article of faith: productions these days contain a fair degree of RP speaking.)
The Broadsides Macbeth has the Scottish court in greatcoats like a bunch of modern Balkan warlords. All appears manly bonhomie until the ageing king makes his son Malcolm Prince of Cumberland and thus bestows the succession on him. It is a moment made suddenly electric by the strapping, and hitherto loyal and compliant, Macbeth, who has been brooding, not unhappily, on the predictions of the three weird sisters and who sees the cookie being stolen from his grasp. His wife knows nothing of the sisters' words but is convinced that the throne is his birthright and channels his vengeful instincts with understated efficiency.
As played by Helen Sheals, this Lady Macbeth is a brisk and manipulative office manager in a sexy little black frock (exchanged at night for a short black nightie, in which her sleepwalk betrays not so much guilt or remorse as irritation at a botched strategy). Andrew Vincent's Macbeth's miring in evil is a gradual and desperate fall, clinging to the sisters' prophecies as they fail him one after another.
Andrew Pollard is a forceful presence as Banquo, alive and dead, and Richard Standing carries superbly that most shattering moment when Macduff learns of the slaughter of his wife and children: it's like watching a large granite rock crumble slowly and silently into a tiny mound of sand. And Rutter himself makes a guest appearance as Hecate - hitherto a goddess, but now referred to as "he" - peering through a pencil spot and spouting Middleton's runic doggerel for all the world like a well-fed giraffe.
It's a beefy production, punctuated with percussive on-stage music - the ubiquitous Broadsides kettledrum, augmented by a sort of football supporters' band of raucous brass - set in and around a square pit lined with a massive deep orange sheepskin rug (in olden RSC days, it would have been a sandpit!) and bounded by an underlit catwalk. Bloody intrigue is physically at the heart of the action.
Shakespeare - indeed, theatre - doesn't come much more invigorating than this.
- Ian Watson (reviewed at Dean Clough's Viaduct Theatre in Halifax)