17 June 2007 Scotland on Sunday

When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or Elgin?

Preview of the Elgin Macbeth. NTS preview.

THERE'S a theory that Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar with the intention of opening it on a summer solstice. Certainly many an outdoor production of A Midsummer Night's Dream has been arranged for that date. Neither of those plays, however, is the choice of director Simon Sharkey to stage beneath the open skies at the ruined Elgin Cathedral on the weekend that the northern hemisphere tilts closest to the sun. What ghosts and other-worldly demons will he conjure up on that auspicious date when, with the Learn division of the National Theatre of Scotland, he mounts a pro-am production of Macbeth?

With any luck it won't be in "thunder, lightning or in rain" that the witches greet the people of Elgin, but the audience could well feel a supernatural chill as the weird sisters make their prophesies for Scotland's most famous king on June 21. Billed as a site-specific multi-media outdoor theatre event, the Elgin Macbeth is a collaboration between the NTS and the Moray community, involving as many as 80 performers ranging from professionals to high school students. Rather than a conventional production of the Shakespeare play, it's more like edited highlights interspersed with scenes drawing on local folklore created in the community over the last five months.

"It's the people of Moray telling a story that belongs to them," says Sharkey, explaining how a play about the 11th century Mormaer of Moray is especially apposite in the Year of Highland Culture. "It's incredibly exciting when you look at Elgin Cathedral and all the resonances around there, which you can't get on a stage or in a classroom."

Professional actor Richard Conlon, who plays Macbeth, has the twin task of taking on one of Shakespeare's meatiest roles and making his debut in a community production. "It's completely different from working with an all-professional cast," says the actor, a veteran of the Dundee Rep ensemble and a familiar face at theatres in Perth, St Andrews and his native Edinburgh. "The energy that you have to commit to the piece is much stronger because you have to go in at a certain level to lift everybody up. Also, doing it outside means you have to command attention and keep it there. We're not just working with the community actors, we're working with the audience, moving through them and amongst them. I've got to do all that as well as take on Macbeth!"

Conlon had always thought of himself as being too young for the part but, playing opposite Anita Vettesse, he's changing his mind. "There's a lot of sexual energy," he says. "It’s a love story, even if it's a destructive love – why else would he do what she says? – and what we can bring to that is a sexuality."

In addition to the central story of the military hero tempted down a murderous path to become king, the show will feature a Gaelic choir, drumming and dance. There will also be mixed-media installations, created by the pupils of Milnes, Elgin, Lossiemouth, Speyside and Buckie High Schools, exploring some of the wider themes raised by the story of Macbeth, not least the gap between fact and fiction.

"Macbeth's legacy is phenomenal," says Sharkey who is contributing to Macbeth Re-mixed, a series of five programmes on Radio 4 to mark the 950th anniversary of the real Macbeth's death. "The legacy is still being felt, mostly because of Shakespeare's interpretation, but when you dig under the surface and you look at who this guy was, ruling peacefully for 17 years, creating the means by which Scotland as it exists now could exist, he must have been absolutely mammoth, a formidable warrior and an astute politician. I'm hoping people will reflect on how astute and formidable the Scottish kings were because a lot of people don't even know that Macbeth was a real person."

The project follows similar re-interpretations of the play staged by NTS Learn last year with the people of Bathgate, Musselburgh, Irvine and elsewhere. It's a novel idea for a national theatre to produce community shows as well as high-prestige vehicles, such as the forthcoming production of The Bacchae with Alan Cumming, and Sharkey admits he's learned a lot in the process. Getting the balance right between professional and community actors takes fine judgement, but he has seen the effects of such work first-hand and is convinced of the benefits.

"The professional actors are what give the production the polish, finesse and muscularity that the audience expect, especially in this football stadium-sized venue" he says. "There's so much that's been learned from the previous two projects. They were high risk and sometimes you didn't live up to your own aspirations. But what's coming back in spadefuls is how transformational the experience is for the participants."

He's thinking of the professional actors, who must be comfortable to work in a less controlled environment, and more particularly of the community participants, who are forced to up their game. It makes them not only better theatre makers, but also more engaged audiences. "Simply to be treated like a professional company is life-changing," he says. "It raises all their expectations of why they're engaged in theatre. When they're in an audience now, they've got a bit of know-how and there's more to it for them. And if you've got an informed audience, in the long-term, they will demand a level of quality in theatre."

The Elgin Macbeth, Elgin Cathedral, Jun 20–23

© Mark Fisher

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