De Oscuro’s Mac//Beth is a dark and brooding piece of dance, brimming with stunning visual scenes, and well-placed in the intimate space of the Royal Opera House: Linbury Studio Theatre. Choreographer and Director, Judith Roberts’ piece opens in a filmic fashion: projections on the back wall set the scene and announce the title in fiery letters as live music from the Elysian Quartet ramps up the tension. In a moment of hush, the three witches appear. As they undergo a ritual de-robing, they shed warm layers, their faces appearing from under shadowy hoods. The three pile up their clothing and methodically set them aside, as if to say it’s time to begin.

Mac//Beth © De Oscuro
Mac//Beth
© De Oscuro

The opening choreography is stunning. The three supernatural beings move swiftly, low and grounded as they move through deep pliés. They are so sure of their footing it’s as though they put down roots every time they make contact with the ground. In contrast, Lady Macbeth (Eddie Ladd) is lifted overhead, tossed by the invisible forces and set down just out of Macbeth’s reach. Macbeth (Gerald Tyler) is studying his hands intently, and there comes a wonderful moment of unison here, as the trio echoes Macbeth’s movement. All focus shifts onto the hands that will murder Duncan.

Then the three witches’ faces appear: huge, projected, and hanging in mid-air. The opening, 'When shall we three meet again?' scene is spoken in three languages before a word of English is uttered. The harsh overlapping tones and the capacity for misunderstanding are extremely threatening. It is immediately clear that Macbeth, who is tiny in comparison with these towering presences, is entirely in the hands of fate.

Macbeth picks up his wife and juggles her, as she moves fluidly around his neck. This adaptation into dance piece works best for Lady Macbeth’s character and she becomes the more physical of the leading couple. Her strength is her body; her allure, and arts of persuasion lie primarily in her sexuality. Her words – almost entirely in Welsh – are important, but not as powerful as the writhing slender limbs she wraps around Macbeth, squeezing him in her grasp. Lady Macbeth’s manipulation of her husband is easily understood through body language and the changes in her tone of voice, from lilting to railing to broken mutterings.

The low babble of Lady Macbeth’s mutterings comes at times when Macbeth is under particular stress. Ladd translates Macbeth’s dagger soliloquy, and his monologue directly after her death, into Welsh, line by line in a low hum, interrupting and undermining his words. This highlights his self-doubt and increases the confusion that surrounds him.

Tyler’s power as Macbeth is his voice, which is deep, warm and personable and yet commanding. Every line he delivers is clear and easily understood – there are no language barriers caused by Shakespearean English here, and Tyler is the only performer not to use any other languages in the piece. Macbeth being the only character fully understandable – at least for the non-Welsh, Polish or Hebrew speakers in the audience – perhaps makes the piece appear more focused on the eponymous hero in this pared down adaptation. In any case, Macbeth’s moments of stillness in his soliloquies contrast noticeably with the frenzied movement at other times, adding poignancy to his delivery that would not have come through in a straight play.

This is a consciously multilingual piece: the programme notes that the characters hail from different parts of the world, and that they have been allowed to revert to their mother tongue when under duress. While the characters speak in their native tongues – English, Welsh, Polish and Hebrew – the members of the audience's individual mother tongues becomes their primary access point to the characters’ inner workings. This opens up the possibility of different people identifying more fully with different characters, particularly in the cases of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, who speak primarily in English and Welsh respectively.

Possibly the most impressive element of the piece is Roberts’ design. Three hanging swathes of fabric hang down from the rafters, catching the light like mist, picking out details from the projected images and obscuring what goes on behind. Projections against the back wall transport us to the windy hills and wild snowy ruins of… Scotland? Wales? Precisely where the piece is set doesn’t matter. The snowy landscape might equally be in Poland.

The set design is so fully integrated within the dance – or, the dancers within the set – that the various elements merge into a single complete visual landscape. The swathes of gauze are used to obscure the identities of the three witches while their hands manipulate Macbeth and Lady Macbeth through the fabric, and yet the faces of these three supernatural beings are picked out, large and vivid, on the fabric.

Three huge triangular blocks are maneuvered around the stage by all characters, often pushed over to punctuate intense moments of rage or fear. When Banquo’s ghost appears, one block is balanced precariously on one edge: its weight tips the physical balance when the bearer lets go, the very moment Macbeth’s sanity tips over the edge. Lady Macbeth catches the falling block, in a striking image of the emotional structure of the scene, supporting the weight of her husband’s mental state.

The multiple layers of visual design are at times distracting – the fierce blank stare of an enormous owl transported me away from what Macbeth was saying momentarily – and some pieces of dialogue were lost, even when spoken in English. Yet these issues seem to be consistent with Roberts’ point that Shakespeare’s language isn’t the most important element of Mac//Beth. The story and its lessons are clear, regardless of auditory language, and are made particularly accessible through the visual language of dance and design.