REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on York Opera in Macbeth, York Theatre Royal

Sharon Nicholson-Skeggs’s Lady Macbeth and Ian Thomson-Smith’s Macbeth in York Opera’s Macbeth. All pictures: Ben Lindley

HARD on the heels of Opera North’s Falstaff, up pops York Opera with the first of Verdi’s three Shakespearean operas, Macbeth.

You do not undertake Macbeth without one absolutely key singer: not the title role, but that of his wife, Lady Macbeth. York Opera has that singer, in spades.

Sharon Nicholson-Skeggs has been sorely missed over the past few years but returns here in triumph, injecting her own special brand of inspiration and lifting the evening out of the ordinary. She alone is worth the price of admission, whatever reservations there may be elsewhere in John Soper’s production.

Beside the two Macbeths, there is another ‘character’ – according to Verdi’s own prescription –that is essential to this piece: the witches. He wanted them to be “coarse and gossipy” on the one hand and “sublime and prophetic” on the other.

A bewitching scene from York Opera’s Macbeth

The ladies of the chorus amply satisfy both requirements, indeed if they have a fault, it is their penchant for gossiping ‘off the ball’ when their attention should be elsewhere. But they blend well and their choruses are a vital pivot in the action.

Soper’s permanent set involves three huge pillars separated by wide stairways, with a low moveable platform in front. The colourings are dark, relieved only by the occasional hanging. Eric Lund’s gloomy lighting completes the bleak picture of Macbeth’s castle.

But a trick is missed with the three apparitions, who need spotlighting, with no illumination elsewhere; dry ice alone, and there is plenty in this show, does not make them ghostly enough.

The challenge facing every conductor of opera is to find a balance between accompaniment and direction, either going with the flow or commanding it. Derek Chivers opts almost exclusively for the more passive approach and as a result his tempos tend towards the sluggish, so that Verdi’s intensity slackens off alarmingly.

The returning Sharon Nicholson-Skeggs’s Lady Macbeth: “Her swoops skyward were spine-tingling, her resonance throughout her range thrilling,” writes reviewer Martin Dreyer

There were several occasions on this opening night when singers, either chorus or soloists, got slightly ahead of the beat, but were held back, usually to their disadvantage. Similarly, the orchestra too often lacked its usual spark though it was generally tidy.

In truth, Nicholson-Skeggs got off to an uneven start, with some wayward intonation in Act 1. Come her Act 2 monologue, however, she was firing on all cylinders. Thereafter she never looked back.

Splendidly attired in black and gold at the banquet (costumes by Maggie Soper), she delivered a resolute brindisi, alongside brilliant woodwinds, and the evening took on a new momentum. Her swoops skyward were spine-tingling, her resonance throughout her range thrilling. She is an outstanding talent.

Ian Thomson-Smith’s Macbeth was the proverbial curate’s egg, good in parts. He seemed to have an aversion to facing his audience, except in his final aria, as if he was not quite inhabiting the role. His character’s vacillations have somehow to look more convincing than this. But there was plenty of evidence that he is still a useful baritone.

Ian Thomson-Smith’s Macbeth: “His character’s vacillations have somehow to look more convincing than this,” writes reviewer Martin Dreyer

Lesser roles were well taken. Adrian Cook’s Banquo (also an eerie ghost), Hamish Brown’s Macduff and Leon Waksberg’s Malcolm all made distinctive contributions. So too did Polina Bielova’s anxious Lady-in-waiting, a promising talent.

The choreography was not credited, but reached its peak in Act 3, where the witches were at their most disciplined. Elsewhere there was less cohesion. In general, less is more with choreography, especially where arms are being waved.

This first night showed the seeds of something much better, but was not quite the finished article.

Further performances: tomorrow (20/10/2023), 7pm, and Saturday, 4pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Review by Martin Dreyer, October 18

Ian Thomson-Smith’s Macbeth in one of his encounters with the Witches in John Soper’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth

More Things To Do in York and beyond as trips & strips, trails & pumpkins await. Here’s Hutch’s List No. 42, from The Press

Made in Sheffield, on tour in York: Simon Beaufoy’s The Full Monty, packed with a star cast at the Grand Opera House

GHOSTS in gardens, men in hats and nowt else, kings in trouble, Halloween scares and pumpkins galore offer an autumn harvest for Charles Hutchinson and you to pick.

Yorkshiremen of the week: The Full Monty, Grand Opera House, York, Tuesday to Saturday, 7.30pm and 2.30pm Wednesday and Saturday matinees

CELEBRATING the 25th anniversary of Peter Cattaneo’s Sheffield film, The Full Monty takes to the stage in a national tour of Simon Beaufoy’s play, wherein a group of lads on the scrapheap try to regain their dignity and pride in a story of ups and downs, humour and heartbreak, resonant anew amid the  cost-of-living crisis.

Leaving their hat on will be Danny Hatchard’s Gaz, Jake Quickenden’s Guy, Bill Ward’s Gerald, Neil Hurst’s Dave, Ben Onwukwe’s Horse and Nicholas Prasad’s Lomper. Box office: atgtickets.com/york

Fiddler Ryan Young: NCEM concert

Fiddler of the week: Ryan Young & David Foley, National Centre for Early Music, York, Monday, 7.30pm

FIDDLER and 2022 MG ALBA Musician of the Year nominee Ryan Young brings new and exciting ideas to traditional Scottish music with his spellbinding interpretations of very old, often forgotten tunes. Joining him in York will be guitarist David Foley. Box office: 01904 658338 or ncem.co.uk.

James Lee’s Gaveston, left, and Jack Downey’s Edward II in rehearsal for York Shakespeare Project’s Edward II. Picture: John Saunders

Play of the week: York Shakespeare Project in Edward II, Theatre@41, Monkgate, Tuesday to Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee

PHASE two of York Shakespeare Project offers the chance over the next 25 years to see works by Shakespeare’s rivals, led off by Christopher “Kit” Marlowe’s intimate historical tragedy Edward II under the direction of Tom “Strasz” Straszewski.

Expect themes of cancel culture, social mobility and celebrity to pour out of this modern interpretation of Marlowe’s 1952 work, starring Jack Downey as Edward II, James Lee as his lover Gaveston and Danae Arteaga Hernandez as his wilful Queen, Isabel, in this “fantasia of power and love”. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk. 

Fascinating Aida: Forty years of sassy satire encapsulated at York Barbican

Cabaret return of the week: Fascinating Aida – The 40th Anniversary Show, York Barbican, Wednesday, 7.30pm

DILLIE Keane, Adèle Anderson and Liza Pulman, “Britain’s raciest and sassiest musical cabaret trio”, celebrate 40 years of Fascinating Aida travels in their typically charming, belligerent, political, poignant, outrageous and filthy new show. Much-loved favourites, such as Dogging and Cheap Flights, will be combined with fresh satirical numbers. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.

Meanwhile, actress, presenter and writer Miriam Margolyes’s Oh Miriam! Live show on Monday has sold out.

Something wicked this way comes: Ian Thomson-Smith’s Macbeth and Sharon Nicholson-Skeggs’s Lady Macbeth in York Opera’s Macbeth

Opera of the week: York Opera in Verdi’s Macbeth, York Theatre Royal, Wednesday and Friday, 7pm; Saturday, 4pm

JOHN Soper directs York Opera in its autumn production of Giuseppe Verdi’s 1847 opera Macbeth, starring the highly experienced duo of baritone Ian Thomson-Smith as Macbeth and soprano Sharon Nicholson-Skeggs as Lady Macbeth.

Sung in English, it stays true to Shakespeare’s original play, complete with witches, ghosts, cut-throats and the political scheming of the Scottish court. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk. 

Lloyd Cole: Two sets in one show, one acoustic, the other electric, at York Barbican

Gigs of the week: Lloyd Cole, Tuesday, 8pm; Paul Carrack, Thursday, 7.30pm at York Barbican  

LLOYD Cole plays two sets in one night on Tuesday, the first acoustic and solo, the second electric, with a band featuring two of his Commotions compadres, Blair Cowan and Neil Clark, as he showcases his 12th solo album, On Pain.

Sheffield singer, songwriter, guitarist and keyboard player Paul Carrack, the soulful voice of Ace, Squeeze and Mike + The Mechanics hits, returns to one of his most regular joints on Thursday. How long has this been going on? Oh, a long, long time. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.

Paul Carrack: Returning to York Barbican

Halloween days and nights: Hallowtween and Hallowscream, York Maze, near Elvington, York until November 4

HALLOWTWEEN is billed as the “UK’s only Halloween event for families with children aged ten to 15”. Venture inside four of York Maze’s Hallowscream scare houses but without the monsters that inhabit them at night for the shocks and thrills of Corny’s Cornevil, The Singularity, The Flesh Pot and a new haunted house.

Hallowscream fright nights promise fear and fun in five live-action scare houses, plus a new stage show, bar and hot food. Box office: hallowtween.co.uk or yorkmazehallowscream.co.uk.

The Bride, in Museums Gardens, part of the Ghosts In The Garden free sculpture trail in York. Picture: Gareth Buddo

Trail of the season: Ghosts In The Garden, haunting York until November 12

THE eerie sculptures of Ghosts In The Gardens return for the third time for haunted York’s spookiest season, as unearthly monks, a noble knight, Vikings, painters, archers, even a phantom peacock, pop up in translucent 3D wire mesh form.

Unconventional Designs have created a free trail of 39 sculptures, installed at  Museum Gardens, The Artists’ Garden, Treasurer’s House, Merchant Adventurers’ Hall, Middletons Hotel, St Anthony’s Garden, Barley Hall, Shambles, Clifford’s Tower, The Judge’s Lodging, DIG, Castle Museum Mill, Edible Wood and Library Lawn.

Professor Dan: Tricks and Treats at the Pumpkin Festival at Piglets Adventure Farm

Children’s festival of the month: Pumpkin Festival at Piglets Adventure Farm, Towthorpe Grange, Towthorpe Moor Lane, York, October 14, 15, 21, 22 and 28 to 31, then November 1 to 3

HERE comes the Pumpkin Patch (with a free pumpkin for every paying child), Pumpkin Carving Marquee, Catch The Bats Quiz, Professor Dan’s Tricks and Treats Magic Show at 12 noon and 2pm, The Bat-walk Fancy Dress Parade at 3.30pm, Gruesome Ghosts of York in the Maize Maze and Spooky Animal Encounters.

From November 1 to 3, the attractions will be Professor Dan’s eye-popping Magic Show (same show times), Gruesome Ghosts of York in the Maize Maze and Spooky Animal Encounters. Tickets: pigletsadventurefarm.com.

Out of luck: Bev Jones Music Company has had to call off Guys And Dolls, starring Chris Hagyard

Postponed: Bev Jones Music Company in Guys And Dolls, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, October 18 to 21.

LUCK won’t be a lady next week after all. Cast illness has put paid to the Bev Jones Music Company’s first production since Covid-blighted 2020. Claire Pulpher was to have directed a York cast led by tenor Chris Hagyard in Frank Loesser, Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows’ 1950s’ musical. Plans are afoot to stage the show next summer instead. Ticket holders are being contacted by the JoRo box office team.

Catrin Finch, right, and Aoife Ni Bhriain: NCEM preview of debut album Double You

Duo of the week: Catrin Finch & Aoife Ni Bhriain, National Centre for Early Music, York, Friday, 7.30pm

AFTER her award-winning collaborations with Seckou Keita and Cimarron, Welsh harpist Catrin Finch has formed a virtuoso duo with Dublin violinist Aoife Ni Bhriain, who commands both the classical world and her traditional Irish heritage.

Inspired by a multitude of influences and linked by the cultures of their home countries, they follow up last November’s debut at Other Voices Cardigan with a select few concerts previewing the extraordinary and original material from their October 27 debut album, Double You. Box office: 01904 658338 or ncem.co.uk.

Paloma Faith: New album, new tour, both entitled The Glorification Of Sadness, in 2024

Looking ahead: Paloma Faith, The Glorification Of Sadness Tour 2024, York Barbican, May 12

NEXT spring, Paloma Faith will play York for the first time since her York Racecourse Music Showcase set on Knavesmire in June 2018, promoting her sixth studio album, next February’s The Glorification Of Sadness.

Her new songs will be “celebrating finding your way back after leaving a long-term relationship, being empowered even in your failures and taking responsibility for your own happiness”, following last year’s split from French artist Leyman Lachine. Hull Bonus Arena on May 3 awaits too. Box office: from 10am on October 20, ticketmaster.co.uk and seetickets.com.

In Focus: Chronicled and Summer Art finalists’ exhibitions at Spark: York, Piccadilly, York, today and tomorrow

Spark summer art under-15s competition winner Emily Saunders with her mother Samantha and Spark:York resident artist and judging panellist Leon François Dumont

SPARK:YORK, the creative community space in Piccadilly, York, is hosting two exhibitions this weekend, both exploring themes powerfully relevant to our communities today.

Chronicled is a pop-up show organised by the University of York’s Ukrainian Society, showcasing works by Kyiv street photographer Dima Leonenko.

His dynamic vision of everyday life in the Ukrainian capital during the Russianfull-scale invasion is reflected through his film photos. ”When I see a character or a scene that catches my attention, I just press the button and capture it,” he says.

On show from 12 noon to 10.30pm today and tomorrow, Dima’s exhibition will be accompanied by an interactive project that allows visitors to immerse themselves in the “war-life reality’’ of the Ukrainian people. The event takes place in Spark:York’s co-working space downstairs, with a drinks welcome, from 6pm to 8pm tonight.

The poster for Kyiv street photographer Dima Leonenko’s Chronicled exhibition at Spark:York today and tomorrow

Spark:York also will be showcasing artworks submitted to its summer art competition, set up to  encourage York-based artists to imagine the city’s future 100 years from now and share their ideas, fears and hopes surrounding the impact of climate change on this historic city.

Leon François Dumont, Spark:York resident artist and judging panel member, says: ”In this art exhibition, we’ve witnessed a remarkable outpouring of creativity from both young and adult artists.

“From a city transformed by shipping containers to a bubble-like dome preserving York under water, these artworks by the finalists are a testament to the power of imagination.”

The exhibition can be viewed in Spark:York’s Show studio upstairs today and tomorrow from 12 noon to 9pm. Guests are invited to contribute to a time capsule created on the day by leaving a message and a memento for the people of York in 2050, the year of the UK’s net zero target. Spark: York hopes to pass the time capsule on to the City of York Council for safekeeping.

The VRAC (Vape Recycling Awareness Campaign) art installation SUCKERED – not – SUCCOURED in the making for display at Spark:York this weekend

At the front of Spark:York will be an art installation by VRAC (Vape Recycling Awareness Campaign), a York campaign group that has been been working with Spark:York over the past 18 months to collect used vapes that would otherwise end up being discarded, either in landfills or down drains, polluting waterways and ground water with toxic metals. An estimated 1.5 million per week are discarded in this way.

Group founder Mick Storey says: ”The SUCKERED – not – SUCCOURED installation, using some 3,000 used vapes, conveys a message about our responsibility to all our young people and the future generations yet to come who will inherit whatever future it is we leave behind us.”

Spark:York “hopes that both exhibitions can open a discussion around the future of our communities, as well as provoke reflections and meaningful actions that can help build a better world for us all”.

Entry to both exhibitions is free.  For more information, head to: www.sparkyork.org/

NEWS ALERT: 26/10/2023

The York In 100 Years exhibition has moved to Spark:York’s pop-up space, where it will be on display until November 5.

Lowri Clarke, winner of the 15-plus categrory of the Spark summer art competition

York Opera picks Verdi’s Macbeth for autumn murders most foul at Theatre Royal

Ian Thomson -Smith’s Macbeth and Sharon Nicholson-Skeggs’s Lady Macbeth in York Opera’s Macbeth

BY the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes to York Theatre Royal next week when York Opera stages Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth.

The 19th century Italian composer drew inspiration from Shakespeare several times with three of his greatest operas based on his work.

His first adaptation in 1847 was Macbeth, whose murderous plot offered him a wealth of opportunities, not least two controversial, anti-hero central characters and scope for chorus scenes involving witches (a full ladies’ chorus singing in three parts), courtiers, refugees and soldiers.  

These components all made Macbeth a favourite choice for York Opera’s autumn production at York Theatre Royal. Sung in English, Verdi’s Macbeth stays true to the original play, complete with witches, ghosts, cut-throats and the political scheming of the Scottish court. 

Ian Thomson-Smith’s Macbeth encounters the Three Witches, Anastasia Wilson, left, Kaye Twomlow and Hannah Cahill, in York Opera’s Macbeth

Central to the opera are the roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, considered to be Verdi’s greatest baritone and dramatic soprano parts respectively. The infamous couple will be played by two of York Opera’s most experienced singers: Ian Thomson-Smith and Sharon Nicholson-Skeggs.

Supporting them in the other principal roles will be Adrian S Cook as Banquo; Hamish Brown, Macduff; Leon Waksberg, Malcolm; Noah Jackson, Fleance; Owen Williams, Ist Apparition; Victoria Beale, 2nd Apparition; Molly Raine, 3rd Apparition; Polina Bielova, Lady in Waiting; Steve Griffiths, Doctor, and Stephen Wilson, Cutthroat & Servant.

The stage director is John Soper, a long-established and accomplished member of York Opera, who has designed the sets too, now under construction by group members Wielding the baton in the pit will be Derek Chivers, a regular musical director for the company. 

Macbeth will be performed at 7pm on October 18 and 20 and 4pm on October 21, with no performance on October 19. The running time will be three hours, including one interval. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

Macbeth meets Blade Runner as Imitating The Dog’s witches fuse theatre and video

Benjamin Westerby’s Macbeth and Maia Tamrakar’s Lady Macbeth in Imitating The Dog’s Macbeth. Picture: Ed Waring

THREE mysterious figures enter the stage, talking of the hurly-burly, thunder and lightning and a young couple hell bent on overthrowing the old regime.

Whereupon they conjure the Macbeths, placing them in a dangerous new world ruled by paranoia, betrayal, and brutality.

Something wicked – but not wholly familiar – this way comes in ground-breaking Leeds company Imitating The Dog’s typically audacious retelling of Shakespeare’s “Scottish Play”, on tour at Harrogate Theatre on February 24 and 25.

Retold and directed by Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks, with set and video design by Simon Wainwright and original music by James Hamilton, Macbeth’s tale of ambition, betrayal and downfall is re-booted as a neon noir thriller wherein Shakespeare’s language collides with “startling new scenes, stunning visuals and a powder-keg intensity”.

“Macbeth is an extraordinary play,” says Imitating The Dog artistic director Andrew Quick. “Shakespeare’s exploration of power, ambition, violence and love seems so relevant to today. 

In the flesh and on screen: Maia Tamrakar’s Lady Macbeth and Benjamin Westerby’s in Macbeth. Picture: Ed Waring

“We’re excited to be bringing Macbeth to Harrogate Theatre in a unique take on the original play, a Macbeth as you have never seen before, but still with Shakespeare’s story at its heart.”

Fusing live performance with digital technology for 23 years, latterly in Night Of The Living Dead ™ –  Remix and Dracula: The Untold Story, Imitating The Dog turn to Shakespeare after staging Cinema Inferno for the Parisian haute couture house Maison Margiela, based on an original concept by creative director John Galliano, for Maison Margiela’s Artisanal 2022 collection.

“We started off with Romeo & Juliet, working on a version for two actors in their 60s or 70s,” says Andrew. “We did some research, but it felt like a one-idea show that we couldn’t commit to.

“But Macbeth was a play we really liked, and there’ve been a lot of film versions, with two recent ones [Joel Coen’s The Tragedy Of Macbeth, from 2021, and Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth, from 2015] still fresh in the mind. So, we thought, ‘if we can’t do Romeo & Juliet, let’s do Macbeth’.”

As a contrast with Denzel Washington and Michael Fassbender’s older Macbeths in those two films, Imitating The Dog settled on two young leads (played by Benjamin Westerby, from the Royal Shakespeare Company, and Maia Tamrakar, from Sheffield Crucible’s Rock, Scissors, Paper).

“Out, damned spot; out, I say”: Maia Tamrakar’s Lady Macbeth, filmed by Laura Atherton, who plays one of the witches in Imitating The Dog’s Macbeth. Picture: Ed Waring

“In our adaptation, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are 18-19 years old; they’re kids really, street kids,” says Andrew.

“We’ve set it in a kind of parallel world, a version of London that’s a cross between Tokyo, Shanghai, Los Angeles and London, with a Blade Runner feel to it. Duncan [the king in the original] is a crime lord; Macbeth seizes the moment, suddenly being thrown into the spotlight when he becomes second in line to Duncan, who starts thinking, ‘ooh, this kid is a bit much’.

“When Macbeth murders him, it’s not just about ambition but self-protection, because though he feels he’s really good at his job, he also feels that if he doesn’t kill him now, he could get done in.”

As played by Stefan Chanyaem, Matt Prendergast (from Dracula:The Untold Story) and Laura Atherton (from Night Of The Living Dead™ – Remix), the witches/shape shifters set up the story in Imitating The Dog’s version, playing everyone bar the Macbeths, who have “fallen into this world that is testing them”.

“The witches are like clowns in suits, these grotesques, who do all the live filming on stage, with Macbeth always being filmed close-up, giving almost a forensic quality to the piece, adding to the psychological drama,” says Andrew.

That world is constructed with 70 to 30 per cent division between original text and new text with hints of the Russian, Italian and Japanese language: “little traces of those argots”, as Andrew puts it. “It’s a cosmopolitan city that is multi-racial, international, like lots of big cities nowadays. “It’s a city that the witches set up and the Macbeths descend into,” he says.

Imitating The Dog’s cast of five in a scene from Macbeth. Picture: Ed Waring

“In the back story, they were orphaned when growing up, and Macbeth is looking after her, more like a brother and sister rather than lovers.

“The challenge was: could we make the Macbeths lovable or at least understandable; make them human, whereas Shakespeare’s Richard III is more of a monster under all that Tudor propaganda of the time.”

Exploring the “challenge” further, Andrew says: “Whether you can really like them or not, I don’t know, but I think you can understand their motives in a very brutal world. The Macbeths do things that are terrible, they use extreme violence, like killing Lady MacDuff and the MacDuff children, but we’re not only interested in a story of power and ambition but the context in which that arises too. Right now, looking at monarchy and power feels very relevant.

“In this very violent world, the Macbeths’ love for each other is very important, with everything that Macbeth does being rooted in his need to protect Lady Macbeth. He’s always questioning, always doubting, always reassessing what he should do next, and what’s great about the play is that Shakespeare gives him humanity despite what he’s doing.”

A further reference point is Arthur Penn’s 1967 film Bonnie & Clyde. “Even though they do these terrible things, there’s something very attractive about them – and once they start, they have to keep going,” says Andrew.

Imitating The Dog in Macbeth, Harrogate Theatre, February 24 at 7.30pm; February 25, 2.30pm and 7.30pm. Box office: 01423 502116 or harrogatetheatre.co.uk. Further Yorkshire dates: CAST, Doncaster, February 21 and 22, 01302 303959 or castindoncaster.com; Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, 01484 430528 or thelbt.org.

Benjamin Westerby’s Macbeth in rehearsal for Macbeth

Copyright of The Press, York

After Henry V and Coriolanus, Claire Morley completes her hattrick of all-female Shakespeare shows with NTC’s Macbeth

Seat of power: Claire Morley, as Macbeth, in Northumberland Theatre Company’s modern-day Macbeth. Picture: Jim Donnelly

YORK actor Claire Morley is starring in Chris Connaughton’s all-female, three-hander version of Macbeth for Northumberland Theatre Company.

Directed by associate director Alice Byrne, she is joined in Shakespeare’s “very gruesome” tragedy by Gillian Hambleton and Melanie Dagg on an autumn tour to theatres, community venues, village halls and schools that visits Stillington Village Hall, near York, tonight (8/9/2022) and Pocklington Arts Centre on September 29.

This streamlined, fast-paced, extremely physical re-boot of Macbeth with original music will be told largely from the witches’ perspective, exploring ideas of manipulation through the media and other external forces. Expect grim, gory grisliness to the Mac max in two action-packed 40-minute halves.

Claire Morley and Gillian Hambleton in a scene from Northumberland Theatre Company’s Macbeth. Picture: Jim Donnelly

Here CharlesHutchPress puts Claire Morley on the damned spot, demanding quick answers, like Macbeth confronting the “secret, black, and midnight hags”.

How did you become involved with Northumberland Theatre Company, Claire?

“I saw they were holding auditions earlier this year and went along as I liked the sound of the company and its mission to take shows to rural places who might not have regular access to the theatre. Then, about a month ago, I moved up to Northumberland for rehearsals.

What does an all-female cast bring to what is often seen as a toxic, machismo play, where even Lady Macbeth says “unsex me here”?

“To be honest, it’s not something that has massively concerned us in rehearsals as we’ve been exploring the characters and their relationships first and foremost. There are some lines about what it is to be a man, which I imagine might ping out more to the audience and make them see the text in new ways.”

Cut out to be king: Claire Morley, Melanie Dagg and Gillian Hambleton in Macbeth. Picture: Jim Donnelly

How are the roles divided between the three witches?

“Chris Connaughton has adapted the script so that the witches bookend the play; this gives us room to play with the witches in the sense that they are manipulating and telling the story.

“So, in the first scene you will see us choose who gets to be Duncan and Macbeth, for example. As there are only three actors, we do all play multiple roles, which has been really fun.”

What are the benefits of staging Macbeth as a three-hander?

“Well, practically, it’s much easier to tour with only three actors in the van! But I’ve also found that it means we have had to really streamline the script and think about what serves the story and what is superfluous.

“I think this makes the production pacy and easy to follow and will be great when we take it to schools for those students studying it for GCSE.” 

“As there are only three actors, we do all play multiple roles, which has been really fun,” says Claire Morley, left. Picture: Jim Donnelly

What is the set design and costume design for NTC’s Macbeth?

“As NTC is a rural touring company, we take everything with us in the van, so, when we get to a venue, we build our stage and lighting rig and set up costumes and props.

“Where we can, such as in Stillington, we’re performing in traverse, which means that the audience sit either side of the stage. I think this gives the show an immediacy as the audience will really feel part of the action, and privy to our thoughts.

“When we’re at Pocklington, for example, we’ll be performing on their stage, so we have to adapt to the venues we’re in! 

“The sound and lighting design really add to the atmosphere and help us change scenes and moods without elaborate set changes.” 

Claire Morley, centre, as Henry V at Agincourt in York Shakespeare Project’s all-female Henry V in 2015. Picture: Michael J Oakes

Does NTC’s Macbeth have a particular period setting?

“We’ve given the play a modern feel. You’ll see how the witches receive some of their prophecies on mobile phones!”

How does this production compare with your previous all-female Shakespeare experiences in York in Maggie Smales’s Henry V, in 2015, and Madeleine O’Reilly’s Coriolanus in 2018.

“I had an absolutely amazing time working with York Shakespeare Project on Henry V and Coriolanus and I hope that all theatre companies continue to implement diverse casting.

“What differs this time is more the circumstances. I’ve never been on tour before and that is the biggest difference! It’s hard work travelling and doing the get-ins and get-outs but I’m in fantastic company and I’m having a great time.” 

Something wicked this way comes: Northumberland Theatre Company in Macbeth, Stillington Village Hall, near York, tonight (8/9/2022); Pocklington Arts Centre, September 29, both 7.30pm. Box office: Stillington, 01347 811 544 or on the door; Pocklington, 01759 301547 or pocklingtonartscentre.co.uk.

The tour poster for Northumberland Theatre Company’s Macbeth, playing Stillington and Pocklington

More Things To Do in York and beyond in the north country. Discover the importance of reading List No 97, from The Press

A MUSICAL with Bob Dylan songs, Wilde wit with chart toppers, heavenly disco and Sunday fairytales promise intrigue and variety in Charles Hutchinson’s diary.

Boarding house tales: Girl From The North Country, the musical with Bob Dylan songs at York Theatre Royal. Picture: Johan Persson

Musical of the week: Girl From The North Country, York Theatre Royal, Tuesday to Saturday

WRITTEN and directed by Irish playwright Conor McPherson, with music and lyrics by Bob Dylan, Girl From The North Country is an uplifting and universal story of family and love that boldly reimagines Dylan’s songs “like you’ve never heard them before”.

In 1934, in an American heartland in the grip of the Great Depression, a group of wayward souls cross paths in a time-weathered guesthouse in Duluth, Minnesota. Standing at a turning point in their lives, they realise nothing is what it seems as they search for a future, hide from the past and find themselves facing unspoken truths about the present. Box office: 01904 623 568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Story Craft Theatre: A giant leap for storytelling in Once Upon A Fairytale at Stillington Mill

Children’s show of the week: Once Upon A Fairytale, At The Mill, Stillington, near York, Sunday, 10am to 12 noon

IN York company Story Craft Theatre’s new show for children aged two to eight, Sunday’s audience will travel through a host of favourite fairytales and meet familiar faces along the way: Little Red Riding Hood, The Gingerbread Man and some hungry Bears to name but a few.

Storytellers Janet-Emily Bruce and Cassie Vallance say: “You’re welcome to arrive any time from 10am as we’ll be running craft activities until 10.45am. The interactive adventure will begin at 11am under the cover of our outdoor theatre, and there’ll be colouring-in sheets and a scavenger hunt you can do too.” Box office: atthemill.org.

From drag queen to society dragon: Daniel Jacob, alias Vinegar Strokes, rehearses for his role as Lady Bracknell in The Importance Of Being Earnest at Leeds Playhouse. Picture: Sharron Wallace

A walk on the Wilde side to a different beat: The Importance Of Being Earnest, Leeds Playhouse, Monday to September 17

DANIEL Jacob swaps his drag queen alter ego Vinegar Strokes for the iconic Lady Bracknell at the heart of Denzel Westley-Sanderson’s Black Victorian revamp of Oscar Wilde’s sharpest and most outrageous comedy of manners.

Premiering in Leeds before a UK tour, this Leeds Playhouse, ETT and Rose Theatre co-production “melds wit with chart-toppers, shade and contemporary references in a sassy insight into Wilde’s satire on dysfunctional families, class, gender and sexuality”. Box office: 0113 213 7700 or leedsplayhouse.org.uk.

Tavares: Close harmonies and disco classics revisited at York Barbican

Disco nostalgia of the week: Tavares, Greatest Hits Tour 2022, York Barbican, Wednesday, 7.30pm

GRAMMY Award-winning, close harmony-singing R&B brothers Chubby, Tiny and Butch Tavares, from Providence, Rhode Island, bring their Greatest Hits Tour to York.

At their Seventies peak, accompanied by their Cape Verdean brothers Ralph and Pooch, they filled disco floors with It Only Takes A Minute Girl, Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel, She’s Gone and More Than A Woman, from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.

Every witch way: The poster for Northumberland Theatre Company’s all-female Macbeth, heading to North Yorkshire

Something wicked this way comes: Northumberland Theatre Company in Macbeth, Stillington Village Hall, near York, Thursday; Pocklington Arts Centre, September 29, both 7.30pm

YORK actor Claire Morley stars in Chris Connaughton’s all-female, three-hander version of Shakespeare’s “very gruesome” tragedy Macbeth, directed by Northumberland Theatre Company associate director Alice Byrne for this autumn’s tour to theatres, community venues, village halls and schools.

This streamlined, fast-paced, extremely physical production with original music will be told largely from the witches’ perspective, exploring ideas of manipulation through the media and other external forces. Expect grim, gory grisliness to the Mac max in two action-packed 40-minute halves. Box office: Stillington, 01347 811 544 or on the door; Pocklington, 01759 301547 or pocklingtonartscentre.co.uk.

Jess Steel: Soulful leading light of A Night To Remember. Picture: Duncan Lomax

Charity concert of the week: A Night To Remember, York Barbican, Thursday, 7.30pm

BIG Ian Donaghy’s charity fundraiser returns 922 days after he last hosted this fast-moving assembly of diverse York singers and musicians.

Taking part will be members of York party band Huge; Jess Steel; Heather Findlay; Beth McCarthy; Simon Snaize; Gary Stewart; Graham Hodge; The Y Street Band; Boss Caine; Las Vegas Ken; Kieran O’Malley and young musicians from York Music Forum, all led by George Hall and Ian Chalk.

Singer and choir director Jessa Liversidge presents her inclusive singing group, Singing For All, too. Proceeds will go to St Leonard’s Hospice, Bereaved Children Support York and Accessible Arts and Media. Tickets update: still available at yorkbarbican.co.uk.

Glass work by Crispian Heath: Selected for the Contemporary Glass Society’s Bedazzled show at Pyramid Gallery, York

Exhibition launch of the week: Contemporary Glass Society, Bedazzled, Pyramid Gallery, Stonegate, York, September 10 to October 30

THE Contemporary Glass Society will celebrate its 25th anniversary of exhibiting at Pyramid Gallery with a show featuring 60 works by 25 glass artists, chosen by gallery owner Terry Brett and the society’s selectors.

For this landmark exhibition in Pyramid’s 40th anniversary year, the society wanted a theme and title that suggested celebratory glitz for its silver anniversary. Cue Bedazzled.

The styles and techniques span engraving, blowing, fusing, slumping, casting, cane and murine work, flame working, cutting, polishing, brush painting and metal leaf decoration. A second show, Razzle Dazzle, will include small pieces that measure no more than five by five inches by 60 makers.

KT Tunstall: New album, new tour

Gig announcement of the week: KT Tunstall, York Barbican, February 24 2023

SCOTTISH singer-songwriter KT Tunstall will return to York for the first time since she lit up the Barbican on Bonfire Night in 2016 on next year’s 16-date tour.

The BRIT Award winner and Grammy nominee from Edinburgh will showcase songs from her imminent seventh studio album, Nut, set for release next Friday on EMI. Box office: kttunstall.com and yorkbarbican.co.uk.

REVIEW: Macbeth, Leeds Playhouse, until March 19. Box office: 0113 213 7700 or leedsplayhouse.org.uk ****

Jessica Baglow’s Lady Macbeth and Tachia Newall’s newly crowned Macbeth in Amy Leach’s Macbeth at Leeds Playhouse . All pictures: Kirsten McTernan

ASSOCIATE director Amy Leach notches a hattrick of make-you-think-anew Shakespeare productions at Leeds Playhouse with her psychological thriller, Macbeth, after her modern Yorkshire industrial take on Romeo & Juliet in 2017 and Hamlet with Tessa Parr’s female Hamlet in 2019.

A huge drawbridge hangs heavy over Hayley Grindle’s stage. Searchlights scan the auditorium from metallic towers spread out like a forest. Fog spreads. Deafening noise bursts through the air. This could be the start of an arena rock concert, but then, look more closely. To one side is a puddle of water; the ground is muddy.

Then listen to the Witches’ opening words; re-shaped, re-ordered, with new rhythms, their sound as important as their meaning. What’s this? Macbeth (Tachia Newall) and Lady Macbeth (Jessica Baglow) are cradling a new-born baby, only for the bairn to die within a heartbeat.

In the Playhouse’s wish to “explore the damaging physical, spiritual and psychological effects of treachery on those who seek power at any cost”, Leach has grabbed the bull by the horns, putting child loss, lineage and legacy at the heart of the Macbeths’ behaviour, the acts of murder, the need to eliminate all threats to their ill-gotten power.

Miscarriage of justice: Jessica Baglow and Tachia Newall as childless couple Lady Macbeth and Macbeth

Leach then takes it even further, Baglow’s Lady Macbeth being pregnant when she says “unsex me here” and later suffering a miscarriage as blood seeps through her nightgown. Come the finale, Leach adds new text to give a foretaste of Banquo’s son, Fleance, becoming king as the Three Witches had prophesied.

Those Three Witches are typical of Leach and Leeds Playhouse artistic director James Brining’s “commitment to accessible and inclusive theatre-making”, as is the participation of the blind Benjamin Wilson as associate director and audio description consultant.

Among the witches, Karina Jones is visually impaired and Charlotte Arrowsmith is profoundly deaf, while Ashleigh Wilder identifies as “a queer, Black, neurodivergent non-binary person”. Interestingly, Shakespeare’s “weird sisters” are not weird, or alien, in the way they are often played, but are as wild as the landscape instead.

Arrowsmith also plays Lady MacDuff, partnered by the profoundly deaf Hull actor Adam Bassett as MacDuff. Tom Dawze’s Lennox vocally interprets the sign language, complementing the intensity of Bassett’s expressive face, hands and arms with the staccato rhythms of his speech.

Ashleigh Wilder, left, Karina Jones and Charlotte Arrowsmith’s wild Witches

Not only do lighting designer Chris Davey’s aforementioned searchlights induce a sense of paranoia, but there are relentlessly oppressive natural elements to the fore too, along with the sound and fury of machismo war. These are all big, muscular, mud-and-blood splattered men, except for Kammy Darweish’s surprisingly jovial King Duncan; their physicality being emphasised by Georgina Lamb’s movement direction. Likewise, Nicola T Chang’s sound design adds to the cacophony.

Macbeth’s vaulting ambition may in part be represented by the drawbridge, crowned when on top of it, but broken beneath it, but Leach’s production is deeply human amid the technology.

In the relationship of Newall’s reactionary Macbeth and Baglow’s more intuitive Lady Macbeth, the shifting sands become less about calculating mind games, controlled by her, more about brute physicality and brutal will, imposed by him, as intense love and mutual hopes are snuffed out in the face of ultimate destiny being beyond their control, whether shaped by supernatural witchcraft or the resurrection of natural order.

Newall’s Macbeth begins as the soldier’s soldier; his soliloquies remain the stuff of northern plain speaking, rather than poetic airs, amid the fevered actions of his bloody rise and fall.

Above all, Leach puts Lady Macbeth’s motives under the spotlight, and if purists feel she has gone too far in doing so, the reality is that Baglow’s performance is all the better, more rounded, for it.  Risk-taking change can be liberating, rather than be judged as taking liberties.

Review by Charles Hutchinson

Crowning gory: Tachia Newall’s Macbeth

More Things To Do in York and beyond, when Jason’s gig is but one good reason to go out. List No. 71, courtesy of The Press

Michael McIntyre: Road-testing new gags at the Grand Opera House, York

FROM McIntyre to Macbeth, two Aussies to an English celebration, a Ugandan story to a pioneering Welsh icon, Charles Hutchinson spreads his net wide.  

Talking point gig of the week: Michael McIntyre: Work In Progress, Grand Opera House, York, Monday, 8pm

COMEDIAN Michael McIntyre will put new material to the test in a “York In Progress” show hastily arranged mid-month for February 28.

Tickets sold out within two hours of going on sale on February 15 for the 45-year-old Londoner’s latest dollops of observational comedy, wherein he turns everyday situations into outpourings of startled exasperation.

The jovial Big Show and The Wheel host previously played a three-night run of Work In Progress gigs at the Grand Opera House in July 2012. For returns only, 0844 871 7615.

Tachia Newall and Jessica Baglow in a masked rehearsal for their roles as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in Macbeth at Leeds Playhouse

Play of the week outside York: Macbeth, Leeds Playhouse, tonight until March 19

DIRECTOR Amy Leach and designer Hayley Grindle have created a vibrant, raw and visceral vision of Shakespeare’s thrilling tragedy, Macbeth.

Tachia Newall plays the ambitious northern warrior, who does whatever it takes to gain power and, ultimately, the throne, propelled further into darkness by his wife, Jessica Baglow’s Lady Macbeth, whose hands bear witness to her own greed and corruption. Look out for York actress Ashleigh Wilder as one of the witches. Box office: 0113 213 7700 or at leedsplayhouse.org.uk.

She Drew The Gun: Songs decrying corruption, abuse and division at The Crescent, York

York indie gig of the week: She Drew The Gun, The Crescent, York, tonight, 7.30pm

PASSIONATE, principled, and refreshingly plain-spoken, proud socialist, feminist, bi-sexual mother of one Louisa Roach will not be cowed into silence.

As She Drew The Gun, the Wirral singer-songwriter uses punk-infused psych-pop as a vehicle for exposing injustice and for advocating a fairer and more tolerant society.

Written in lockdown and recorded at McCall Sound Studios in Sheffield, latest album Behave Myself decries corruption, abuse and the continued divisions between rich and poor that have only worsened in the pandemic. Annabel Allum supports. Box office: thecrescentyork.com.

Jason Donovan: So many reasons to celebrate his York Barbican concert

Third time lucky: Jason Donovan, Even More Good Reasons, York Barbican, Monday, 8pm

AFTER postponements in September 2020 and November 2021, Aussie heartthrob Jason Donovan’s 52-date tour to mark the 30th anniversary of his debut album, Ten Good Reasons, is finally happening. That anniversary actually passed as long ago as May 2019 on a faraway pre-pandemic planet!

“Having not done my own live shows for a while, I can’t wait to get out there again among my fans and deliver a new energetic show that is both personal, creative and reflective – something that is both nostalgic and just a good night out,” says the one-time Neighbours soap pin-up turned star of pop, stage musicals and theatre. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.

Writer-performer John Rwothomack in his one-man show Far Gone at York Theatre Royal Studio

Solo show of the week, John Rwothomack in Far Gone, York Theatre Royal Studio, Thursday and Friday, 7.45pm

WRITTEN and performed by John Rwothomack, Far Gone is set in northern Uganda, where Okumu’s village is attacked by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), changing Okumu and his brother’s lives forever.

The story of a young boy’s journey from childhood innocence to child soldier is seen through the eyes of those that love him and those that betray him, as presented by Ugandan-born, London-trained and Sheffield-based Rwothomack in his debut play as writer and performer, prompted by himself nearly being kidnapped by the LRA guerrilla rebel group.

He explores complex issues of war, religion and power, drawing on the contrast between his experiences as a child in Uganda and as a young black man in Britain, and how perceptions of “Africa” have affected his own narrative. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Tommy Emmanuel: Playing his best “Tommysongs” at the Grand Opera House, York

Guitar virtuoso of the week: Tommy Emmanuel, Grand Opera House, York, March 6, 8pm

LAST seen in Britain performing on the Transatlantic Sessions Tour, Australian guitarist Tommy Emmanuel returns for 13 dates in February and March with dobro master Jerry Douglas as his special guest.

Emmanuel, 66, who improvises big chunks of each concert, will be showcasing The Best Of Tommysongs, a double album of re-recordings of his best original songs from the past 30 years with new modern arrangements.

Angelina, Lewis & Clark, It’s Never Too Late, fan favourites Mombasa and Train To Dusseldorf and new compositions Fuel and Song For A Rainy Morning will be aired in York. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or at atgtickets.com/York.

Simon Wright: Conducting York Guildhall Orchestra’s St George’s Day debut at the JoRo

Bring out the flags: York Guildhall Orchestra, St George’s Day Concert, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, April 23,7.30pm

YORK Guildhall Orchestra and conductor Simon Wright make their Joseph Rowntree Theatre debut with a celebration of patron saint St George in an evening of light music with the spotlight on English composers.

Expect a variety of favourite pieces alongside some lesser-known gems, but not a dragon in sight in this joyful springtime programme. Box office: 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.

Going Underground: Velvet pioneer John Cale to play York Barbican at 80

Gig announcement of the week: John Cale, York Barbican, July 19

VELVET Underground icon John Cale will play York as the only Yorkshire gig of his seven-date summer tour, his first British itinerary in a decade, with tickets going on sale on Wednesday at 10am.

The Welsh multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and producer, who turns 80 on March 9, will perform songs from a career that began in classical and avant-garde music before he formed The Velvet Underground with Lou Reed in New York in 1965.

Over six pioneering decades, Cale has released 16 solo studio albums, most recently M:Fans in 2016, while also collaborating with Brian Eno, Patti Smith, The Stooges, Squeeze, Happy Mondays, Siouxsie And The Banshees, Super Furry Animals and Manic Street Preachers. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.

REVIEW: The HandleBards’ biker-groovy Macbeth, York Theatre Royal ***

Something wickedly funny this way comes: Jenny Smith, left, Natalie Simone and Kathryn Perkins as the ‘Weird Sisters’ in The HandleBards’ Macbeth

The HandleBards in Macbeth, York Theatre Royal, tonight (26/1/2022) at 7.30pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

THE Scottish Play becomes The Skittish Play when recycled by eco-conscious pedalling enthusiasts The HandleBards in pursuit of daft laughs on their return to York Theatre Royal.

Tragedy takes a hike up the Scottish Highlands, soliloquys lose out to a rising cacophony of noise, and The Porter’s knock-knock interlude vanishes like the secret midnight hags into the dreek mists.

Often cut for being Shakespeare’s one (not-very-funny) comic interlude, as unwelcome as a drunken heckler, presumably this time Macbeth’s bouncer has been axed for being the one character that did not require conversion to comedy.

The HandleBards like to break down barriers, as Emma Sampson’s cast demolishes theatre’s fourth wall from the off when perky Kathryn Perkins, towering Natalie Simone and professional debutante Jenny Smith introduce themselves and who they will be playing. These days, it is called meta-theatre, a form of heightened awareness that a play is indeed all about playing.

Crowning gory? Kathryn Perkins’ hell-for-leathers Macbeth

Or it could just be that The HandleBards just want to “shake a spear” at all that seriousness that emanates from so many Shakespeare productions.

Macbeth has broad shoulders and can pretty much take anything you throw at it, on stage or screen, although there was one time on a Leeds stage where the lead actor was so hapless that he not only murdered all around him, he murdered Macbeth.

That does not happen here, but Perkins’ Cockernee Artful Dodger Macbeth does tend to play second fiddle to the weird sisters, the Witches pulling Macbeth every witch way, every which way in this all-female production.

If you want punk irreverence, you will find it here, not least in the biker costume designs of Lucy Green that echo the Seventies’ clobber of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, tartan trim and all.

Jenny Smith’s Donalbain in The HandleBards’ Macbeth

Cycling paraphernalia is omnipresent too, from the bell to signify scene changes to the tyres on the Macbeth’s biker jacket; from the bicycle pedalling that provides the power for scenery to turn around to the honking of a horn to add to the anarchic silliness. Macbeth and co are bikers, not cyclists, as indicated by the HandleBards’ use of handlebars to signify motorbikes and a child’s toy for the sound of a revving engine.

There is abundant comic energy here, indeed an excess of it, that leaves Macbeth’s text struggling for air by comparison with last May’s visit of Romeo & Juliet that had a better balance between HandleBards’ comic mayhem and teen tragedy.

Imagine Eric Morecambe undermining Ernie Wise’s attempts to present one of those “plays what I wrote”, but then overplaying it as clarinet and shruti box drown out Perkins’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy. In such a moment, something of the play is lost in choosing to tell it by behaving like Shakespeare’s idiot, full of sound but not fury, signifying what?  

Elsewhere, the comic tone works better, as does the editing out of the dull political stuff down in England. Natalie Simone’s Strictly Come Dancing-loving Lady Macbeth is a scream, blessed with the best comic timing; Jenny Smith has bags of clowning physicality; Perkins’s Macbeth is sacrificed to the constant playfulness.

Dancing queen: Natalie Simone’s Strictly-loving Lady Macbeth

You will enjoy women sending up Macbeth and MacDuff comparing their manliness; the Witches’ percussive musicianship, singing and later rapping; the impatience at MacDuff taking forever to comprehend the news that his wife and bairns are all dead (spoiler alert); the use of red confetti to signify blood; the dagger attached to Macbeth’s head to “see before me”.

Look out too for two Coronavirus references, two well-placed insertions of topical comedy where, elsewhere, Sampson’s cast sometimes pushes too hard for lightweight laughs at the cost of storytelling.

Sampson had decided to not replicate the use of baked beans and tomato soup for blood from the original HandleBards’ Macbeth, preferring the less messy confetti, but there are moments where the production could be cleaner, less prone to over-excitement, less busy.

This Macbeth is neither ‘bloody’ funny, nor dead funny, in a hammy Hammer horror style; more of a Five Go Camp Acting jaunty jape instead.

Coming next will be a tour of Twelfth Night; dates are yet to be announced.

Review by Charles Hutchinson

If there’s a funny side to Macbeth, be assured The HandleBards will find it

Crowning gory? Not when Kathryn Perkins plays Macbeth in The HandleBards’ Macbeth. Picture: Rah Petherbridge

SOMETHING wickedly funny this way comes in irreverent Shakespeare troupe The HandleBards’ all-female Macbeth, the first burst of York Theatre Royal’s Spring! Season on January 25 and 26.

Anyone fearing that “The Scottish Play” will be all gloom and doom instead will encounter “The Skittish Play”, with the tragedy-trampling promise of a frantic, delirious, full-of-beans farce delivered by Kathryn Perkins, Natalie Simone and Jenny Smith. 

Director Emma Sampson, now returned to Australia, says: “Working with The HandleBards is always the most fun job of my calendar year and the all-female cast has been a delight to direct. They are truly three of the funniest women I have ever met in my life.”

Tom Dixon, co-producer and co-founder of these cycling purveyors of environmentally sustainable Shakespeare, concurs. “Having three women playing all the roles brings real joy to poking fun at all the toxic masculinity in Macbeth. There’s a tradition of finding men dressed as women funny, and this way we can mock men by having women play them.

Jenny Smith’s Donalbain. Picture: Rah Petherbridge

“Lucy Green’s design has gone for a rocker biker theme, so lots of the costumes have bicycle motifs. Macbeth’s leather jacket has tyres on the shoulder pads, and for the motorbikes we have bicycle handlebars and children’s toy parts too.

“We also have Macbeth and MacDuff squaring off and comparing sizes, shall we say, because they’re such ‘manly men’, with all the humour that goes with that when played by women.”

Revelling in The HandleBards’  “very weird ‘Weird Sisters’” taking on all before them in Macbeth, Tom suggests Shakespeare’s tragedy is a joy because it is “such a giving play”, one that continues to draw myriad reinterpretations, whether on stage or screen, where Joel Coen’s The Tragedy Of Macbeth, starring  Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, is the latest addition.  

“I’m sure you can think that Shakespeare wrote some scenes with comedy in mind, not just the Porter’s scene but how Macbeth addresses everyone towards the end,” says Tom, The HandleBards’ artistic director. “That’s something we like to have fun with when finding a theme for our productions.

“In 2015, when we first did Macbeth, we went for a camping theme, with half baked beans/half tomato soup for all the blood, but Emma vetoed that for the new production. Back in 2015, it was the original [all-male] company that performed it, and we were very willing to get messy!

Every witch way: Jenny Smith, left, Natalie Simone and Kathryn Perkins in The Handlebards’ irreverent Macbeth. Picture: Rah Petherbridge

“Maybe Emma thought, ‘that was back then, but we don’t want it to be so messy’. Now it’s more about ‘meta-theatre’, with one of the characters always trying to play the clarinet behind every Macbeth soliloquy, much to Macbeth’s annoyance.”

Extracting the toxic masculinity from Macbeth meets a counterpoint in Lady Macbeth’s plea to “unsex me here”. “It’s that whole idea that being a woman and committing these acts [of murder] is something that a woman just wouldn’t do, which makes her such a fascinating character.

“We do explain why she says it but we come to a silly conclusion, where our Lady Macbeth really loves Strictly Come Dancing. What’s fun for us is that we’ll have these serious discussions about what masculinity means but then that breaks out into silly jokes.”

Not everyone finds The HandleBards’ pursuit of humour to be a barrel of laughs. ”To be fair, we do meet some people who don’t like our style, and that’s fair enough,” says Tom. “It’s not for everybody, but I would argue we have a wider reach than most, because a lot of people think Shakespeare is not for them, but, look, he wrote for the masses.

“We get this situation a lot of the time, where someone, usually a man, comes along with a friend who bought a ticket for them, and they come for a nice picnic, but they leave converted. Our shows can be a gateway to Shakespeare for them, thinking they would now be prepared to go to a more serious production.

Out, damned spot! Natalie Simone’s Lady Macbeth. Picture: Rah Petherbridge

“But our productions are always grounded in the truth of the text. We still hold the text in the highest esteem, and we keep the dialogue in period. We’re Shakespeare nerds but we like to have fun, and with Macbeth, there are so many iconic images, like the floating dagger and the Witches, it gives us themes to explore humorously.”

As a generalisation, The HandleBards can have more fun with a tragedy than a straight-up Shakespeare comedy. “A lot of what Shakespeare finds funny is now outdated, which sets a challenge, so it’s nice to be able to surprise people with a silly version of Macbeth, where we can take the tragedy and make it funny,” says Tom.

Last May’s Theatre Royal visit with Romeo & Juliet showed The HandleBards could make the most of a tricky mix of Mercutio-led comedy making way for murder and tragic teen suicides. Now prepare for an all-female, bewitching, unhinged, dead funny take on Macbeth.

The HandleBards present Macbeth, York Theatre Royal, January 25, 7.30pm, and January 26, 2pm and 7.30pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Copyright of The Press, York