From Breaking Bad to the Bard: The European Theatre Group's Macbeth

Image credit: Johannes Hjorth

For a show which has been eight months in the making, you might wonder if director Nicholas Hulbert is sick and tired of Macbeth. “Actually no”, he explains, “Obviously your interest waxes and wanes of the course of the whole period, but it’s a lot easier when you’re doing such a great play and when you have such a great team around you. You just have to focus on the core of the play.”

‘Core’ seems to be the key word for Nicholas, whose pared-down production will be hitting the ADC from Tuesday. His cast and crew is the latest incarnation of the European Theatre Group, a touring student company conceived in 1957 by Sir Trevor Nunn and Sir Derek Jacobi (the group’s current patron) among others. After a summer of planning, an autumn of auditioning and rehearsal, and finally a winter tour performing in two professional theatres, as well as in numerous schools across much of western and central Europe, the ETG are back in Cambridge this week for what will be their final run of shows. Does Nicholas feel the pressure? “To a certain extent. Clearly the ETG has a great lineage of which we’re now part, but there’s also the pressure of putting on one of the great plays of the English language.”

Nicholas reveals that he has a “personal history” with Macbeth. “I was lucky enough as a child to be accepted into the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. Macbeth was the first play I was properly in, and so I’ve always had some sort of personal affinity with it. It’s also one of the least inaccessible Shakespeare plays for a lay audience, most of which won’t even have English as their first language; there’s only really one main plot to follow unlike in most others.”

I ask whether the exigencies of performing to these types of audiences had proved a help or a hindrance to Nicholas’ direction. In particular, was there a need to try and update the show so that it has – to use the favourite buzzword of today’s curriculum – ‘relevance’ for a modern audience? “You have to work in the context of what you’ve been given. We’ve used strong colours to create easily identifiable characters, and as a nice kind of visual cue which we keep in the play, and obviously our set design had to be something which can easily be dismantled and erected as we went on tour. We’ve used tapestries which double as the woods of Birnam and those in Macbeth’s court, for example.”

Credit: Johannes Hjorth

 “In terms of ‘relevance’, it’s hard because the supernatural is such an important part of what the play is about, and any attempt to update it loses that. As a physicist, one of the things which strikes me about Macbeth is that it was set in a time not before we understood how the world works, but before we could even begin how to understand how the world works. You can set the play in 1930s New York if you like, and there have been successful productions which have done just that, but you lose that element of supernatural which is so important.”

This is not to say there are no modern influences on the production: Nicholas recounts how he drew inspiration from The Shining and, more recently, Breaking Bad, both as explorations of the human psyche as it reacts to circumstance. Iranian surrealist art, pagan symbols, and even modern photography from Cambridge artists all find their way into this production.

This, for me, poses a broader question about direction in general: how far can particular aesthetics be used simply because of their appeal rather than because of their relevance to the text? “We’ve been very careful in Macbeth to avoid running the gauntlet of adding in things simply because we think they look cool. What we’ve done is use tools of narrative storytelling from today, as modern ways of representing timeless theatre. The show is actually quite minimalist. Though I shy away from using that term because often when shows are ‘minimalist’, it’s because they are trying to make a point of being minimalist. What we are trying to do is bring out the underlying psychology in the play.”

It’s clear that a lot of thought has gone into the production, as you might expect from such a long process. It’s also refreshing to see a student production ambitious enough to tackle one of the best-known plays in the English language. I end by asking Nicholas about this, and if he is worried that Shakespeare is on the decline. “For me it was never a choice between Shakespeare and not Shakespeare; I just love the play so I applied to put it on.

“If you look at this term’s schedule at the ADC, they’ve got ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore, they’ve got Henry V at the Arts Theatre, so, no, I don’t think older drama is on the decline. Let’s hope, anyway.”

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