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Review: Macbeth premiere at Queen’s Hall Arts Centre, Hexham

Tara Arts' new production of Shakespeare's Macbeth opened at the Queen’s Hall Arts Centre Arts Centre, Hexham at the start of a national tour

****
Talula Sheppard Robert Mountford as Macbeth
Robert Mountford as Macbeth

The first and most important thing to say about this new production of Macbeth is that it grabs your attention and holds it.

It is as good a telling of Shakespeare’s blood-drenched tale as anything I’ve seen since Jonathan Pryce’s murderous thane ‘died’ on a plank jutting over the Tyne Theatre audience for the RSC back in the late 1980s.

And it is refreshingly different, coming from a company renowned for putting British Asian talent in the spotlight.

Tara Arts, run for years by Jatinder Verma, has set up Black Theatre Live, a new Arts Council-funded consortium of regional theatres – including the Queen’s Hall – to work with Black, Asian and ethnic minority theatre companies.

Talula Sheppard Macbeth (Robert Mountford) with the witches, Ralph Birtwell, Deven Modha and John Afzal
Macbeth (Robert Mountford) with the witches, Ralph Birtwell, Deven Modha and John Afzal

As we see here, they don’t limit themselves to unfamiliar works in foreign languages. Tara Arts was in Hexham for a fortnight putting the finishing touches to a production of Macbeth that would grace any stage.

Costumes, music and movement plant the story firmly in an Indian setting. Instead of the disputed crown there is a crimson turban to adorn the head of King Duncan and then the usurping Thane of Cawdor.

The witches, men in the glorious saris of an Indian drag act, were inspired by the Hijras of India, an officially recognised ‘third gender’ of transvestites and transexuals who, according to Verma and members of the cast, are known for turning up at weddings to demand money with unspoken menace.

Here, as they sashay about the stage, they fix in the mind of Macbeth, waylaid on his triumphant return from battle, the idea that he’s destined for the top.

Talula Sheppard Robert Mountford as Macbeth with, left to right, Shalini Peiris, Shaheen Khan as Lady Macbeth and Ralph Birtwell
Robert Mountford as Macbeth with, left to right, Shalini Peiris, Shaheen Khan as Lady Macbeth and Ralph Birtwell

Combat takes the form of a kick boxing-style martial art and the action is driven by a superb on-stage drummer, Rax Timyr, who also provides sound effects, both subtle and bone-crunching.

All this is detail. Ultimately, a Shakespeare play stands or falls on the language and here it is king.

Robert Mountford commands the stage as Macbeth. Speaking his lines beautifully and with conviction, like all the cast, his “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow...” is music to the ears.

Shaheen Khan, tackling her first Shakespeare as Lady Macbeth, rises to the challenge, stoking her husband’s courage and later uttering cries of real anguish. The sleepwalking scene is cleverly done.

I was impressed, too, with Umar Pasha’s Macduff but all are good and the production will tighten and intensify as the tour progresses.

All augurs well for Black Theatre Live and Hexham’s role in it.

There is one more performance in Hexham, tonight (February 27) at 7.30pm.

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