Macbeth is a tale that truly travels well: I’ve watched it venture back to feudal Samurai Japan on film, or forward to a trendy London restaurant kitchen on TV, with superb results. The central dynamics of distrust, greed, violence and paranoia fit unnervingly well into each new scenario. Glyndebourne’s short opera from Luke Styles sets Macbeth in a modern British army unit deployed, judging by their desert fatigues, somewhere in the Middle East. The libretto is carved straight from Shakespeare’s original by Ted Huffman, who also directs this dynamic, menacing, all-male production: for the first time in opera, Shakespeare’s language remains intact, though his work is significantly cut to produce a nimble, intense 70 minute drama focusing on the psychological over the supernatural.

Ed Ballard (Macbeth) © Robert Workman
Ed Ballard (Macbeth)
© Robert Workman

In a sick twist of fate, the Medieval brutality of war depicted by Shakespeare, with its decapitations and dismemberings, is no longer historic: gruesomely re-enacted today by ISIS on every newsreel, Macbeth’s bloody violence doesn’t require any technical adjustments to feel contemporary. Nor does its effect on our protagonists, who grow increasingly psychotic as they (in Sir Richard Eyre’s phrase) “wade deeper and deeper into blood”: Styles and Huffman’s particular reading invites issues like PTSD to add a fresh gloss to familiar ideas.

Kitty Callister’s pared-down design places all the action on a large mat of artificial grass which covers the stage, with a handful of basic props (wooden chairs, a lectern, a table, a bench) to fit the utilitarian military mood: tipped up, the table becomes fire cover for retreating soldiers, while a single lamp implies Cawdor Castle. Supertitles (by Martyn Bennett and Lottie Gulliver) are projected above the action, allowing us an unusually vivid engagement with the text: so often, Shakespeare’s words can rush away rapidly from us on stage, but here, both projected and sung with deliberate clarity, every word shines and works its magic.

Aidan Coburn (Lady Macbeth) and Benjamin Cahn (Ross) © Robert Workman
Aidan Coburn (Lady Macbeth) and Benjamin Cahn (Ross)
© Robert Workman

Styles has cited Britten as a key influence, and his Macbeth strongly recalls Billy Budd in its all-male cast, its clear shaping of words on music, and above all in the mysterious set of chords which supplant Macbeth’s “Is this a dagger” soliloquy. Smaller than Britten’s set for Billy’s trial, but still eerie and effective, we all know what those chords signify: Macbeth’s hysteria echoes silently in our heads as they are played. The work’s familiarity makes games of this sort with the audience possible: so, after his murder, Banquo (a soft-toned, engagingly naïve portrayal from Alessandro Fisher) does not appear at Macbeth’s table. He does sit to the side of the stage, but there is no need for grey greasepaint or ghoulish gestures.  We all know Macbeth’s conscience sees him all too clearly: Fisher doesn’t need to move. Moments of intelligent restraint like this keep the production lean and intriguing throughout.

Ed Ballard brings Macbeth carefully from zealous patriot to ruthless power-monger, communicating a mounting sense of excitement as he takes ever harsher steps to secure his position. Ballard’s warm tones and superb phrasing ensure a performance bursting with dramatic richness: he paints colour into his words like no one else, articulate in glance and gesture alike. Aidan Coburn’s Lady Macbeth is hand-wringingly anxious from the start, not so much the harsh-voiced harridan as an already-unstable, desperately needy housewife who won’t take no for an answer. Coburn’s characterisation and voice occasionally pale beside Ballard’s, but on the whole, his Lady Macbeth is all the more fascinating for being just a bit gentler than her forebears.

Jeremy Bines and the LPO © Robert Workman
Jeremy Bines and the LPO
© Robert Workman

Richard Bignall is moving as Macduff, shattered by the mass execution of his family. Andrew Davies is memorably vulnerable as a heavily pregnant Lady Macduff, cleverly delivering her lines in broken intervals into a mobile phone to account for the absence of Ross (elsewhere Benjamin Cahn), though Davies’ spoken Porter could have been more humourous in the only flat moment of the night. Singing throughout the twelve-man company is uniformly strong and well characterised: all smaller parts are executed with the polished talent Glyndebourne tends to command. Twelve musicians from the London Philharmonic Orchestra occupy the rear of the stage, conducted from the centre by Jeremy Bines. Styles gives his percussionists plenty to do, from stormy rattlings to military drumbeats, seasoning his harmonious recitative with shock tactics: Styles’ music swirls, hums, and draws us inexorably into the dark heart of power.

In a chilling final reversal, it is would-be assassin Fleance’s death Macbeth greets with the words “Out, out, brief candle”: both Macbeth and his Lady seem to survive, glad-handing troops after battle, Macbeth singing Malcolm’s triumphant invitation “to see us crowned at Scone.” Huffman’s point may be that Macbeth has been effectively reincarnated as the victorious Malcolm, for kingship brings an instant burden of violence. Either way, it’s an elegantly creepy, defiantly cool finale.