There has already been one Polish Macbeth this year at Globe to Globe (and there are two further Polish Macbeths in Edinburgh besides this one). There was also a Middle Eastern-set Macbeth at LIFT. Macbeth is clearly the zeitgeisty play de nos jours. To cover both bases,TR Warszawa have gone for the neat synthesis of being Polish and setting the play in the Middle East. And then naming the year as 2008. For no discernible reason whatsoever.
This is Macbeth as action movie. Coming on like a cross between Rambo and Homeland, it kicks off in the cathode-lit war room of a Scottish(!) invasion of an unnamed Islamic country.
Grzegorz Jarzyna's production looks amazing. In the dimly-lit, tiled room below - the set comprises four rooms on two floors - men in Arabic dress pray toward Mecca, while others stand by gripping Kalashnikovs. Macbeth and his men burst into the room all guns blazing and hack off the insurgents' leader's head with a knife.
The production boasts many such impressive set-pieces: the first encounter with the Witches is the spookiest I've seen. All the nonsense about cauldrons is tossed out in favour of a solitary woman wearing an Islamic veil whispering to Major Macbeth that he will be made ruler of “Cawdor Sector”. Although using the Niqab as signifier of sinister-ness feels more than a little racist.
Elsewhere, the party in a small upstairs room on the night Duncan is murdered features an Elvis impersonator and a barely-registered soldier-on-soldier male-rape. As the Macbeths get more and more tired (Macbeth and his wife really do “sleep no more” here), their world becomes more and more surreal.
By Act V, the Witch has lost the veil and has become a shaven-headed, spectral vamp in a hot pink mini-dress and heels, while in the corner of the room Uncle Sam and a man dressed in a white rabbit costume play a game of slapsies.
Taken as a whole, it's superficially reminiscent of Rupert Goold's Stalin-themed staging. However, where Goold's production seemed to magically bend Shakespeare's words to his agile wit, this production opts for leaden re-writes whenever they want to say something new or “topical”. Performed in Polish, the surtitles give us back a literal English translation of what's said. This is a very plain, de-poeticised version of the text (one or two passages of the original survive with newly added typos).
I've nothing against cutting, adding-to or generally mucking about with Shakespeare, per se. This however, feels worryingly close to dumbing down for no reason other than that it fits with the chosen theme of American adventurism. The performances are functional rather than charismatic, which does have the interesting effect of allowing us to see just how squalid the plot actually is when you don't care about the central characters.
Ultimately this production comes down to a play-off between electric staging and precious little apparent thinking, and it's hard to say which side wins.
- Andrew Haydon
Lowland Hall, 11-18 Aug