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Acclaimed Director Clare Prenton returns to Stafford Festival Shakespeare for this year’s production of Macbeth. With rehearsals getting under way this week we sat down to discuss her take on the show…

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays – what is it about the piece that appeals to you as a director?

There are many appeals to the play. It’s richness of language and poesy, it’s pace and economy and the way it appeals to the imagination in creating a world that is at a more spiritual and superstitious period in history. It gallops in pace and captures audiences imaginations too. Yet there are themes pertinent to the 21st Century too - politics, envy, evil. Political instability, tyrannical leadership, tensions between England and Scotland, childlessness and a marriage under the microscope - these are all themes and ideas we can understand immediately. The play reaches out to everyone.

James I and VI of Scotland who was patron of Shakespeare’s theatre company The King’s Men when this play was written was a monarch who well understood plots to kill rulers. Threats to his life were a daily reality from the womb onwards. Indeed in 1586, his mother Mary Queen of Scots was arrested and imprisoned for treason in The Gatehouse, Tixall before being decapitated.

Sir John Aston being the Sherriff of the County having no choice but to allow this. She was at Tixall for two weeks before being taken for her trial and execution.

The Gunpowder Plot in 1605 was another example of a great plot to unseat the establishment. The play premiered in 1606 so treason plots are very much in the consciousness. In the 21st Century, The British Royal Family spends an estimated £100m annually for high security - their safety is under threat at all times.

There have been several recent productions of Macbeth, and a number of high-profile film versions over the years. As a director, do you like to see other versions, and do they impact on your approach, or do you prefer not to see any other productions?

I don’t look at other versions, initally, no. I start by reading and re-reading the play and just thinking about it. I tend to have a strong feeling, an idea - usually on a dog walk! Perhaps it was because I was walking in the forest in the Scottish Borders that I wanted to head back to the Middle Ages rather than a contemporary take on this play with the colours of the landscape influencing the colour palette.

Then later, I do look at other versions - they can give you ideas about what you don’t want to do, to crystallise your own approach and it’s important to be aware of other versions I think so you are not ignorant of what might have gone before. I looked at a wide range of productions for this from the RSC, Globe, RNT, the Roman Polanski 1971 and the 2014 Michael Fassbender movie versions. But I also looked at a range of influences from TV series such as Outlander, Game of Thrones and Harry Potter and William Oldroyd’s 2017 film Lady Macbeth. I collect visual images on Pinterest boards as well to help gather a mood board for the production to share with the designers and composer.

Macbeth is set in the past, and uses language and references that are not current – as a director, how do you approach presenting the play like this to a modern audience who may be unfamiliar with the setting and language?

We work very hard on unpicking the text, it’s sense and meaning and work with Mel Churcher, voice and text coach as well on clarity of meaning. Of course, there are always references that perhaps now are more obscure but they still work on another level and it’s part of the actor and director’s job to communicate that meaning. The Porter’s speech was heavily influenced by the Gunpowder Plot for example, but it still works and is still very funny on another level - the Jacobean audience would have understood it differently - but we also understand Knock Knock jokes, so it still also works on that level.

Macbeth deals with some heavy themes, like tyranny, corruption, and death – in what ways do you feel this show will be suitable for a wide audience/families?

Well it’s important to teach our children about all of those issues, I would argue! Children understand about power and have a natural sense of justice. I think it’s very important that children do not grow up assuming the older generation necessarily have their best interests at heart and that they can change the world for the better. It is a frightening atmosphere and about dark deeds but for the over 8+ age range, it’s a good examination of abuse of power and a look at bad leadership. Fleance represents the next generation and he has to do right by all of those children killed - there is a fire and an anger in him.

A lot has been written about gender in Shakespeare’s plays, and the ways female characters are portrayed. Macbeth in particular has some very strong female characters. Does your approach to directing this show include addressing gender and how it is presented?

Unlike last year where we had male roles transformed into female roles in The Temepst, this is a more conventional Macbeth in terms of gender and casting. Gender politics are always a point of discussion in any rehearsal space, yes. And what real power did women have in this period compared to today? One cannot deny that the role of women and servants in the middle ages was often subservient and that women were defined by their relationship to their men or children. The fact that Lady Macbeth is not a mother puts her in a strange place for a woman in that society. What Shakespeare does though is show us a Lady Macbeth who is intelligent, clever, cunning and fallible - she is rounded as a character showing great strength then later mental frailty and a descent into madness. A Lady Macduff who is angry at her husband for abandoning them, powerful witches and a Goddess of the Witches. So the supernatural women representing the agents of evil are ultimately very powerful. Shakespeare’s characters and writing always offer wonderful opportunities for men and women, regardless of the social frame.

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about gender balance in the entertainment industry, and it seems that there is not an equal balance of male/female directors working professionally in the UK. Do you feel that gender impacts on the role of theatre director?

Gender doesn’t impact at all on the role itself, no - but it does impact on your statistical likelihood of getting the role so yes, there’s still plenty of work to be done here in some areas as in all other professions and industries.

And some theatres are really leading on it, so there’s hope too. More female directors mean more stories told through the female eye and more women’s stories and plays produced. There is currently a bias in many theatres - as in all industries - and the thorny issue of ‘unconscious bias’ if not overt discrimination.

But it’s not just women this bias exists against older workers, the disabled and artists of non white backgrounds. All work places are being asked to really look at their unconscious bias in decision making and recruitment. And the topic of quotas is coming into the cultural and recruitment conversation…there are a number of campaigns for change. Often legislation and quotas are needed to increase diversity. But we must remember we are not ‘special’ as an industry - all workplaces face these challenges and we must adhere to legislation and ideally best practise. Perhaps as creative artists we have a responsibility to lead on them as we have a visibility that other industries do not. Some of the larger and better resourced organisations are leading on this - the Globe and the RSC for example.

Macbeth will open on Thursday 28th June and run until Saturday 14th July 2018 at Stafford Castle, with tickets available from just £14. Full ticket information can be obtained from the box office on 01785 619080 or by visiting www.staffordfestivalshakespeare.com

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