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The Bunker Trilogy: Macbeth
Published on Tuesday, 20 August 2013

4 stars

C venues - C nova (venue website)
31 Jul, 1-26 Aug, 10:00pm-11:15pm
Reviewed by Ellen Macpherson

 Parents or guardians should consider the content of this show if children are attending.

You get the Fringe programme, you flick through it in a furious search for the words 'Belt Up Theatre'; you find nothing. You resign yourself woefully and dramatically to mediocre theatre for the foreseeable future. But hold on! What's this? A whole trilogy of adaptations produced by Belt Up's Jethro Compton? Your Fringe is saved after all!

Okay, time to shatter the illusion. I know about eight people who reacted in exactly that way to the absence of Belt Up, but personally I’ve never actually seen any of their work. What I have seen, however, is a veritable boatload of Macbeths – both good and awful – which meant I was under no pre-conceived illusions about this new adaptation, set in a First World War bunker. As I sat down on a cramped sauna-style wooden bench, with the horrifying vision of gas masks in the corner of my eye, my first conscious thought was "this better be bloody good."

As it turns out, the Bunker Trilogy's Macbeth piece is good. Very, very good. Good enough to forgive the hour of spine-bending and profuse perspiration. The set itself is a spectacle; I've been to a few historically-reconstructed First World War bunkers in Europe, and this set mirrors them perfectly in quality, displaying attention to detail that many other companies could learn from. In this tiny room, the audience feels like part of the bunker crew, and there’s some subtle interaction during the banquet scene – casting us as the esteemed guests witnessing Macbeth's breakdown.

Setting Macbeth during the First World War works well in theory, but in practice, I wasn't sure I quite believed it. I’ll assume that Lady Macbeth was nothing more than a seductive trick of an apparition, otherwise her presence is a little hard to explain. Even so, playwright Jamie Wilkes has left it open to interpretation whether Macbeth is experiencing reality, or some sort of PTSD-induced hallucination. I rather enjoyed the idea that Macbeth might have been driven mad by his own experiences; it’s a different take to previous productions that I've seen, and it definitely merged well with the play's core themes of the supernatural and the unreal. But the slight lack of clarity might have been a source of confusion for first-timers in the audience – if there is indeed anyone at the Fringe who doesn't know the general plot of Macbeth.

Sam Donnelly, although far from the burly Scotsman most of us would picture in the leading role, proved compelling. He seems a soldier of strength and virility, yet with the vague air of a man cuckolded by his wife. Serena Manteghi, meanwhile, without a doubt provided one of the better Lady Macbeth performances I've seen. This character is very easy to overplay and caricature; Manteghi instead was seductive, persuasive, and slightly softer than I'm used to.

Be forewarned: there are only four actors in this production, a difficult number for any Shakespeare adaptation, and potentially confusing if you’re not completely familiar with the plot. Some of the cuts also make it a bit harder to follow than a full-length version – for example, Macduff isn't mentioned until the last quarter or so. Even knowing the play as well as I do, this was a little jarring. If you haven't read the script since you were at school, a more conventional and accessible production might be a better way to re-acquaint yourself.

For Macbeth aficionados, however, this version will leave you suitably impressed. Nightmarish gas masks aside, it really is a wonderful production – totally immersive, and very faithful to the Bard. Often productions of Shakespeare, particularly with large and violent plays like Macbeth, can become too caught up in the grandeur of it all. Wilkes has done entirely the opposite, with an intimate adaptation which provokes the audience to think deeper rather than wider. I'd say it's worth seeing for the set alone, but it really is the performances that will stick with you, long after you’ve stumbled out of the bunker.

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