William Shakespeare
Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre Company
Grosvenor Park, Chester

Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre Credit: Mark McNulty
Mark Healy and Hannah Barrie as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth Credit: Mark McNulty
Grosvenor Park Cast perform the Banquet Scene Credit: Mark McNulty

The manicured lawns and lavishly stocked borders of Chester’s Grosvenor Park may seem an incongruous setting for the gruesome events of Shakespeare’s most brooding tragedy. However, the new season of Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre kicked off in style with an impressive production of Macbeth.

It was a challenge to transport us from balmy afternoon to blasted heath, but credit is due to the imaginative staging of director Alex Clifton and the cast for creating the perfect atmosphere. The tone is set from the innovative approach to the opening scenes which sees what we assume to be victims of Macbeth and Banquo in battle, regain life as the witches who then deliver their chilling prophecies.

The costumes, which combine elements of Great War and paramilitary style, help to emphasise the warlike aspect of the play alongside the hierarchical system where officers, or thanes, lust for promotion and, in the case of Macbeth, will stop at little to achieve it.

Mark Healy is a suitably rumbustious Macbeth. Swaggering in his early victory, he seems open to persuasion to commit regicide and claim what he and his wife believe will be theirs by right anyway. Macbeth is assisted in his rise to King, and subsequent decline to drunken tyrant, by the gleefully malevolent witches, who double as the assassins of Banquo and the Macduff family.

Alternating brilliantly between controlling Macbeth’s destiny and being despatched by him to commit another vile act, twin sisters Nichole and Danielle Bird, alongside Max Gallagher, produce chillingly magnificent performances. It is an inspired decision to incorporate the witches into the central action and their continued presence ensures constant reminders of the vital supernatural element.

They surround Macbeth during the dagger scene, cajoling him with the weapons until he consents to commit the deed. However, the presence of the witches outside their scripted scenes is possibly best exemplified in the banquet following Banquo’s murder. Their gasps and screams at each movement of the apparition of Macbeth’s murdered friend combine to unsettle and captivate in a superb piece of theatre.

Lady Macbeth is superbly presented by Hannah Barrie, from her initial ambitious appearance, as she reads the letter from her husband outlining the riches promised by the witches, to her desperate final moments. Her early confident appearances in evening dress are a stark contrast to the stricken, guilt-ridden figure vainly seeking to wash the imaginary blood of Duncan from her hands.

Whether hectoring Macbeth, confessing to a series of horrors while asleep or appearing as part of her husband’s desperate visions, Hannah Barrie is alarmingly convincing in one of the great roles of Shakespeare.

Equally impressive is Thomas Richardson as Macduff; his reaction to learning of the death of his family was enough to freeze the blood on a hot afternoon. The concluding fight scene between Macbeth and Macduff, as well-choreographed as those before had been, is a fitting climax as the ill-fated despot is cornered by the apparitions of his wife and victims before accepting defeat.

The joys of this presentation are enhanced by the pleasure of the surroundings of the temporary theatre, now an annual fixture in Chester’s Grosvenor Park. Despite the re-working of aspects of the play, and a personal preference would be to see the Porter scene included, the plot still unfolds in a coherent fashion and contains as much menace and blood as anyone could require on a mid-summer afternoon.

Reviewer: Dave Jennings