Are the ‘weird sisters’ merely figments of Macbeth’s imagination, providing him with spurious justification for his advancement and only part of the play because Shakespeare wanted to please King James, well known for his interest in the supernatural? Clearly Luke Styles and Ted Huffman take this view, since their bare-bones, all-male version of “the Scottish play” omits any hint of witchcraft and focuses entirely on Macbeth as soldier and king. Does it work? We thought so, provided you’re able to let go of certain preconceptions.
Macbeth excites almost as much expectation as Hamlet in terms of language, and it’s greatly to the credit of both librettist and composer that this version, whilst making some drastic alterations, still retains some of Shakespeare’s most poetic and visceral lines (for example ‘The west yet glimmers with some streaks of day…’ and ‘Now does he feel / His secret murders sticking on his hands.’) We miss much of the soliloquies, yet there is still a sense of Macbeth’s duality of character, from the brutal commander to one who is ‘…too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness / To catch the nearest way.’
The music is scored for chamber orchestra, with evocative use of percussion and piano, and although it is pared down to the most emotionally sparse lines it still has moments of surprising lyric grace, most appropriately in Duncan’s wistful reflection about his mistaken trust in the traitorous Thane of Cawdor and in Macduff’s grief at the news of his family’s fate. Jeremy Bines, Glyndebourne’s Chorus Master, conducted members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra with the skill and empathy which we’ve come to expect from him.
The all-male cast, mostly clad in combat gear or dark shifts, features some strong young voices, and it’s good to see a modern-dress production where the soldiers don’t look embarrassed by their costumes. Many of the singers have experience in small roles at Glyndebourne as well as the chorus, and this was evident in the confident Ross of Benjamin Cahn and the touching Lady Macduff of Andrew Davies. Ed Ballard was a convincing Macbeth, one of whom it might be said that he is to be relished ‘more in the soldier than in the scholar.’ Aidan Coburn’s Lady Macbeth seemed a little under-directed.
Most people know Shakespeare’s ending to the play, in which Macduff kills Macbeth and then Malcolm restores order in the traditional style, but for those of us who lean more towards the view expressed by Gloucester’s ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods / They kill us for their sport’ in King Lear, the conclusion offered by this version made a different kind of sense. Instead of the new leader addressing the assembled survivors of the tragic carnage with emollient words, we had those same words spoken by the tyrant, who here survives the avenger’s blows and cynically ennobles those who are still standing. You could say it’s better than all that credulity-stretching stuff about how the hero never did much but would have been great if he had (Hamlet) and it certainly leaves you with a totally different sense of the nature of ambition and tyranny.