Neil Cooper

THERE have been many Macbeths who have moved through the portals of the Citizens Theatre. As with other things in the Gorbals based institution which will soon be undergoing a major make-over, if you're not careful they'll end up hanging round like ghosts. The trick, as the Citz's current artistic director Dominic Hill has discovered during his six year tenure, is to keep moving, to respect the past while creating something new for the moment, with one eye always on the future.

So it goes with The Macbeths, Hill's stripped down take on Shakespeare's Scottish Play, which will be performed in the Citz's sixty-seater Circle Studio. Hill's new take on the play focuses solely on the play's central couple, and how vaulting ambition whispered in the bedroom ends up being the only thing that keeps them together, before the extreme actions that result from it destroys them both.

“It's just about him and her,” says Hill on a break from rehearsing his two-actor version of the story. “Most of the best bits of that play are the exchanges between the Macbeths as a couple, so this seemed like a good opportunity to boil things down to looking at their relationship, and how that works, why it works, and why it falls apart.

“It's not new at all to say that there is an absolute preoccupation in that play with the idea of sleep and the inability to sleep. I've always felt that I wanted to explore the feeling that I think the play evokes, particularly through the language, of that three O'Clock in the morning insomnia thing. I'd always had the idea of setting the play simply in a bedroom, and to just focus on him and her.”

Hill worked with writer, dramaturg and Citizens Literary Associate Frances Poet to create a version of the play that only uses the dialogue between the Macbeths, but which still allows the play's full story to be told.

“We've chopped it about a bit in order to tell the story,” says Hill, “with a little bit of them being given other people's dialogue, though not that you'd notice. But what it isn't is two people doing Macbeth and playing lots of other parts. They're the only two characters onstage.

“What we've created is a relationship. There's always a closeness between the Macbeths as a couple, but in a way that starts in quite a fragile way. We played with the idea of the fact that he's been away for a long time, and then he comes back, and what that was doing to their relationship. We talked a lot as well about the child that's referred to, and what that means. Them being childless I think is really crucial to the play, and sort of sets them apart from everybody else.

“Then, through the language, they both step into this other world, this dark world that is evoked through images of night and moths and bats, so there's this idea of encroaching darkness and evil. So it feels dark. Metaphorically dark. Emotionally dark. And I suppose that's something that within the confines of that small space we can create and bring out.

“ One of the things I like is that you can still create through theatre those kind of emotions that one thinks of as being very much taken over now by cinema, particularly in terms of darkness, evil and horror. This is dark and disturbing, but it just comes from two people, the story and the language. It's also about being able to concentrate on something which is about ambition and murder, the effects of murder, the effects of guilt and how that turns people mad, and how that's something that's happening right there in your space. That's what we're trying to create.”

Hill has never previously directed Macbeth in its full form during his time at the Citz. He has, however, overseen a production of Verdi's opera based on Shakespeare's story for Scottish Opera in 2014. The most recent version of the play itself to be seen at the Theatre was by experimental company, Filter, who introduced a radio play style treatment into the mix.

There is something in Hill's approach that brings to mind the spirit of Charles Marowitz, the firebrand American director, whose filleting of Shakespeare's original as A Macbeth was in keeping with his era's spirit of experimental deconstruction of classical texts. Some of these were seen in the Citz's former studio space, The Close, which was situated roughly in the same area as the Circle Studio. All of which is key to Hill's thinking behind The Macbeths.

“I've never done a show in the Circle Studio,” he says, “and we're knocking that space down next year, so I thought it would be nice to do something in there before we do that. I was also thinking about the history of that space, which has often been to explore classics, originally in the 70s in a free way, and that was part of the thinking about choosing something that still felt Citzy, but was still kind of different and new. And we haven't done a Shakespeare for a while, and I'm sort of obsessed with that play.”

Casting for something like The Macbeths is crucial, and Hill has drafted in Keith Fleming and Charlene Boyd as the would-be king and queen. Hill has worked with them both before. Fleming recently appeared in Hill's productions of Oresteia: This Restless House, and played Macbeth at Perth Theatre in 2013, while Boyd was seen in Douglas Maxwell's play, Fever Dream: Southside. Both actors too have worked together before, playing another messed up couple in Barflies, Grid Iron Theatre's pub-set adaptation of short stories by Charles Bukowski. This sounds like a solid grounding for the Macbeths own volatile relationship.

“I think they're both terrific,” says Hill, “and I knew that they know each other and get on well, and I thought that would be a positive thing in terms of the rehearsals, Because, within this version, it's intimate, and it's exploring the relationship between a couple, so it felt like it was necessary that within the time that we have that the two actors were easy with each other. What's great about both of them is they're very open, and both open to play and exploring, so it feels very collaborative, and it feels like we trust each other in the room. It's nice.”

As a whole, The Macbeths sounds anything but nice.

“I suppose there's a desire to give the audience an experience,” says Hill. “I think it's quite a visceral, challenging experience, and so hopefully that will be impactful. And maybe it will make people just think about that relationship that's happening onstage in a very focused way, so it unlocks something about that relationship for audiences that perhaps they've not thought about before.

“It's not spectacle. It is is absolutely a concentrated version of Shakespeare's text. I hope people will watch it and forget they're watching Shakespeare, and that that they're just watching a play about two people, what those two people do and the consequences of that. That feels right to me. It takes away the Shakespeareness, and is just a play about these two people.”

The Macbeths, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, September 27-October 14.