Macbeth

William Shakespeare
Belt Up Theatre
House of Correction, Clerkenwell
(2011)

Macbeth publicity image

York-based Belt Up has brought its four-man production of Macbeth, first seen at their home base, York Theatre Royal, last autumn, to the Clerkenwell Prison (the fourth on this site) where it has undergone a subterranean change to become a candle-lit promenade. I did not see it in York but reviews suggest the original version mined the play for comedy and mentioned scenes which have not survived the journey south and underground. Clerkenwell's history-laden site has brought its changes. This innovative company's productions have never been fixed in aspic and that is certainly the case here.

Ethereal singing which marks the opening of the play alerts the audience, waiting in the cells and entrance way, now equipped with chairs and a bar but still shadowy, and a tall dark figure with a candle leads them as though to some religious rite into dark passages and below low arches into the labyrinthine prison. Above their heads the "bloody man" of Shakespeare's second scene is making his report to King Duncan.

There is no brewing up of spells, the cowering figures one might have thought were wounded soldiers now are witches and go straight into Macbeth's encounter with them and their prophecies. The play continues similarly deftly cut and sometimes rearranged to give us the concentrated story.

Director Alexander Wright has utilised the site with skill, sometimes a narrow passageway slows down audience movement as they proceed to a new location but they can hear what is going on ahead and where a space is crowded the actors move through spectators making an intimate connection with all. Sometimes an actor disappears in one place appearing shortly after from a quite different direction or they merge into the background and, perhaps making a slight change to their unkempt dirt-smirched costume, emerging as a different character. A witch speaks and then is Banquo, the same actor (Joe Hufton) in the next scene is Malcolm and later Macduff's son, relying on the text and the actor to make sure we know the difference.

The bloodied soldier (Marcus Emerton) is a witch, Duncan is briefly Fleance and Macduff, while James Wilkes is a witch, Lady Macbeth and Lady Macduff too - and I lost track of whom was playing Ross or Seyton, but there they were when needed.

Dominic Allen is a young Macbeth, his khaki overcoat and riding boots a reminder of his soldier status, his youthful good looks and slight in stature in contrast to a plain, county-skirted wife reinforces her resolution set against his guilty qualms but this is a man whose smart salutes suggest that he has lived by the rule book, but he finds fire in his belly and his lion-like roaring echoes through these vaults. Clearly spoken, balancing the poetry against the need for naturalism in such close quarters, except when volume in this acoustic swamps verbal sense it still delivers the right emotion, this is a Macbeth who seems almost always present, not leaving things to underlings. He watches Banquo's murder and himself beats Macduff's child to death and garrottes the boy's mother, this is no show for the squeamish. When the dead Banquo reappears amidst the audience/guests at the royal banquet, blood drenched and naked the temperature seems to suddenly drop.

Wilkes's Lady Macbeth is one of the best I've seen: she is something of a control freak and even Macbeth's erotic ardour has to give way to things she thinks more important. Her hand-washing at first practical immediately after the murder. She is shown not just sleep-walking but in her madness, candle obsessed, as a background to Macbeth's approaching reckoning, until without her, he battles with Macduff, the man "not born of woman", in the dark shadows.

There is much that has been cut to make this 90-minute version work but its compactness adds to the intensity of the playing, an intensity that never falters despite the actors having not only to negotiate the complex environment, and adapt to changing audience configurations on top of playing their multiple roles, but to do so while carrying lit candles with their hot wax.

It is a production that is probably best understood if you already know the play but it will provide a powerful experience even if you don't, not least because of the atmosphere of the location and the way in which the wailing of the weird sisters permeates the production, coming even through Macbeth's own mouth. It is with the witches it begins and with them it ends, not with the upbeat accession of a new king of Scotland.

At The House of Correction Thursdays-Sundays only, with performances at 7pm and 9 pm until 8th May 2011

Reviewer: Howard Loxton