Do you like politics? Do you know your Shakespeare? Then you're going to love MacBlair. The concept sounds gimmicky – Macbeth re-mastered, with Tony Blair in the title role and Gordon Brown as Banquo – but there's real depth and weight to writer Charlie Dupre's audacious tragi-comic adaptation. Employing a mix of Shakespearean text and newly-penned pentameters, Dupre delivers both humour and provocation, revealing in the process not just an appreciation of modern political history but a deep understanding of the Bard's original themes.
The parallels in the storylines only go so far – Gordon Brown, after all, did eventually become PM – but Dupre avoids the trap of overstretching the metaphor through slavish adherence to Shakespeare's plot. Instead, he draws gentle parallels; rather than Banquo's ghost, we have a chilling parade led by Dr David Kelly, while Duncan's murder is replaced by Blair's own blood-stained infamy – his decision to join the Iraq War. It's all done subtly, trusting the audience to understand, with a knowing reference and a familiar soliloquy enough to locate us within the original work.
There's a lot of humour to it, as well; some of the parallels are clever enough to trigger bursts of laughter, and the four actors all turn in fine pastiches of the political giants of the age. Dupre himself is impressive as Blair, perfectly capturing his strange mix of magnetic oratory and apparent disconnection from the real world. James Sanderson impresses with his sheer versatility, but is perhaps most memorable for a hilarious cameo as John Major; while Lorna Shaw and Matt Morrison also deliver fine performances in a number of roles, occasionally stepping off-stage and returning as a different character within the confines of a single scene.
It's a stylish production, slickly choreographed and impeccably rehearsed, played out before a backdrop of newspaper clippings which are cleverly flipped over to mark the passage of history. And the re-casting of the Three Witches as tabloid journalists is a masterstroke; doubling as stage-hands, they are a constant gleeful presence, clearly enjoying the destruction they have wrought and malevolently unconcerned by the human cost of it all.
There are just two things, I think, which hold Macblair back from being the five-star show it clearly may become. The first is that it lacks a little drive and tightness – the most forgivable of sins on what was, after all, a world-premiere night. But my second concern's more structural: that the character-defining Iraq War happens far later in the play than Duncan's murder does. As a result, there's an extended period when the Shakespearean references are spread too thin, leaving me wondering for a while whether we were ever going to return to the plot of Macbeth at all.
But these quibbles detract little from a generally triumphant production. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay Dupre is that I was sometimes racking my brains, trying to remember whether the words I'd just heard were his or Shakespeare's. And political geeks will love it too: the references and soundbites you'll remember from the Blair years are all there, whether to jeer or to enjoy. There's nothing wrong with a gimmick if it grows into something more – and MacBlair's inspired concept is just the starting-point, for a genuinely substantial, genuinely Shakespearean satire.