The Macbeths

Citizens Theatre, Glasgow

Until October 14

Reviewed by Mark Brown

GLASGOW'S Citizens Theatre has a strong tradition of smaller scale, studio work. Famous though it is for the grand productions in its main house, the Citz's staging of studio pieces dates back to the mid-1960s.

Initiated in 1965, The Close Theatre Club (which was destroyed by fire in 1973), sat immediately adjacent to the Citz. It presented a programme which often included left-field modernist theatre.

In 1992, 23 years into his extraordinary 34-year reign as artistic director, Giles Havergal opened two small studio spaces within the Citizens' building. These studios allowed the Citz to stage avant-garde work (such as Eva Peron, by Argentine dramatist Copi, in 1997) and some exciting new writing (like Mark Thomson's Pleasure And Pain, first staged in 2002 and revived in the Citz's Circle Studio earlier this year).

Current Citz artistic director Dominic Hill plans to replace the studios with a new Close theatre studio as part of the theatre's forthcoming major renovation. For now, however, he is returning the spirit of the late Havergal era to the Gorbals playhouse with The Macbeths, a pungently abridged version of Shakespeare's Scottish play.

Using a carefully cut version of the text, this two-hander, created by Dominic Hill (director) and Frances Poet (dramaturg), is assiduously modern. Imagine a version of Tracey Emin's famous 1998 artwork My Bed hosting, not the solipsistic detritus of a supposedly dissolute youth, but a powerful, human drama of loss, ambition and, above all, desire.

Here the Macbeths, Charlene Boyd (Lady M) and Keith Fleming (Macbeth), crash headlong into violent chaos through a haze of cigarette smoke and vodka. The modernisation and domestication of the drama reduces the significance of the witches' prophecies, putting the greater motivating influence upon the sexual relations between Macbeth and his wife (which is where it should be in any case).

Boyd's Lady M urges her husband to regicide with a sharp, forceful argument that brooks no disagreement. However, in this intense, domestic setting, the crux of her persuasiveness is her sexual power over her spouse. Rarely have I encountered a Lady M who appears so menacing when she speaks the crucial words: "When you durst do it, then you were a man;/ And, to be more than what you were, you would/ Be so much more the man."

As the play's title suggests, these king killers are a double act, joined not only in sexual desire and vaulting ambition, but also in anguish. When Lady M pulls open a drawer beneath the bed, from which she takes toys that belonged to her child who died in infancy, due heed is paid to her remembrance: "I have given suck, and know/ How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me."

For his part, Fleming's Macbeth is the perfect embodiment of public, militaristic swagger combined with private uncertainty. Sweating like a bull, his sensuality is craving, rather than domineering. In the boudoir, at least, he and his wife are equals.

The bigger political picture of Macbeth's burgeoning tyranny, complete with speeches by other characters, comes, cleverly, in the shape of surveillance technology which is more 20th-century analogue than contemporary digital. As events undo the minds of, first, Lady M and, then, Macbeth, one wonders whether these are the private interactions of modern murderers (such as the Ceau?escus in Romania or the Marcoses in The Philippines), or a bleak, mutual, psychotic fantasy.

Either way, this is Shakespeare's play delivered in powerfully concentrated form, as if straight into the bloodstream. Cleverly set and superbly acted, it is a reminder of the possibilities of studio theatre at the Citizens.