The Crypt of St Andrew's Church, Holborn
This production of Macbeth, played in the atmospheric brick-lined vaults below the church, is described as a promenade and the audience move between several different locations below the building but they move on instruction and are then fixed in their positions, not free to negotiate their viewpoint during a scene or obliged to follow an actor to keep up with the action as is often the case with this style of performance, and there are either seats or mats on the ground to sit on.
Director Sarah Bedi has not imposed some director's concept on the play. It is a fairly straightforward presentation of the text that is well and clearly spoken, though sometimes with too much emphasis on a caesura or, in the case of one actress in particular, chopped up into bite-sized phrases or one word emphases. The enveloping arches produce an atmosphere that unifies the audience and the intimacy is increased not only by the proximity of the actors but by the delivery of lines directly to individual members of the audience, both in soliloquies and in orders to courtiers or servants who are not otherwise present.
Macbeth's witches are a wonderfully theatrical opening which here is pared down to three actors at the extremes of the space who each don a red sleeve-length glove along with eerie sounds that could be musical or human as they draw together. They take things slowly at first, each vocally offering the wind that is called for and then hastening the pace. As they leave they remove their gloves and drop them on the ground.
What is exceptional about this production is its casting. Anyone who now puts on those gloves becomes a witch. Not only are roles cast across gender but it seems that everyone gets the chance to play all the characters (though that is not literally true). This is much more sophisticated than the drama school show where different actors are cast in different scenes; the handover takes place mid speech. Another voice first interjects a line and then a line later the first actor relinquishes the character and in many cases passes on some token by which the character can be identified: a black gilet for Macbeth, a red shawl for Lady Macbeth and others less obvious, along with a label which bears the character's name, though that in the atmospheric lighting and at a distance was usually unreadable even if you were aware of it.
The takeovers are carefully timed and efficiently performed, once you have accepted the convention they do not interrupt the action which moves smoothly forward, but one cannot help asking "Why adopt this multi-actor playing?" Was it intended to tell us something about the characters? Produce a different response from the audience? Is each player a different aspect of the character? Is this telling the audience that every one of us could do these terrible things or be the victim of them?
Perhaps but not really in a way I understood, though it does constantly remind us that these are actors. Perhaps it was just serendipity: "You can't all play Macbeth," says the director. "Oh, yes we can," say the actors and so they do.
Those actors are Scott Brooksbank, Lucy Bruegger, Ffion Jolly, Geoffrey Lumb and Katherine Newman and they all play with a refreshing directness and a physical confidence that has them clambering through holes in the wall without you even being aware of the extra effort. They maintain intensity even, and necessarily, when they are out of sight. The use of a filmed sequence to present the English scenes shows how much presence matters. It falls flat and produces the most fragmented delivery.
I also felt somewhat cheated that we did not even have the beginnings of a fight between Macbeth and Macduff at the end of the play. Somehow "Lay on " - blackout - is not enough; you need the clash of swords or at least a grappling. A blackout solves the problem of what do they fight with in a modern dress production yet earlier, when Macbeth had to draw his dagger for Duncan's murder, he simply took one conveniently placed on the wall nearby. In the same way Lady Macbeth takes a letter from the wall rather than bringing it in with her. This at first seems an affectation but is soon accepted, along with picking garments off a hook left to "don" a character
For the "Is this a dagger?" speech that precedes that moment a red- gloved witch appeared holding the phantom dagger and it is the witches that resurrect a fallen coat to represent the ghost of Banquo. You have to be wide awake to make the right connections - but that is what this production is about. There are moments - the first entries of a female Duncan and a female Macbeth with nothing to indicate role or status especially - when I think the audience needs a little help. With a play as familiar as this most of the audience will already know who to expect and it is very difficult, as someone who has seen numerous productions (including another cellarage promenade this Spring), to be objective about how much an audience can intuit.
In the equivalent of a mission statement Baz Productions say, "Our cast work spontaneously, tuned into each other to play freely and sensitively - all in pursuit of encouraging our audience to become active spectators." The energy and concentration of their work certainly draws in their audience. Of course, the venue helps and perhaps there is a self-selection in choosing to attend a production that has the promise of intimacy that generates an audience that is more open to or actively seeks involvement, and Macbeth provides a very visceral engagement, but it is through the actor that theatre operates and this company make themselves a very effective conduit.
"Macbeth" plays in St Andrew's Crypt until 5th November 2011.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton