Wednesday 20 April 2011

Cruel magic

Belt Up Theatre's Macbeth, The House of Detention, Clerkenwell, London (with Southwark Playhouse)

Macbeth is saturated with metaphors and monologues about sight. It makes sense, then, to set it somewhere dark. And you can’t get much darker than The House of Detention, an old Victorian prison running underneath Clerkenwell. One would hope this clever site-choice would afford a fresh look at some well-worn monologues, as well as an enveloping sensory experience. But although Belt Up Theatre’s Macbeth contains some frightening theatre – especially when the brilliantly conceived three witches are involved – Shakespeare’s words and drama are diminished in the dark.

I’m not convinced Shakespeare and site-specific theatre are brilliantly suited. Such pieces are normally short – Belt Up’s Macbeth runs at an hour and a half – and the editing is consequently brutal. It means that, bar a few monologues startling in their own right, the text is not key. This is fine but it does mean the atmosphere and tone is crucial, allowing for a more sensory exploration of Shakespeare’s work. With their version of The Trial, Belt Up used the claustrophobic Southwark tunnels to trap the audience in Josef K’s predicament. We felt his fear and confusion.  And yet, with Macbeth, though we’re so close to the action we can sometimes feel the doomed King’s breath, it’s hard to connect with his story.

This distancing, despite the proximity of the action, is due to a pared down text, some confusing doubling and a slightly thin atmosphere. Belt Up Theatre have set themselves an impressively ambitious task. Deep beneath the ground, there are no special effects on hand and the only lighting comes from flickering candles and the natural light that bleeds through the cell windows. On the one hand, this creates a suitably murky, dusty and magical space. On the other hand, it means it is down to Belt Up Theatre to conjure up an encompassing atmosphere, with precious little assistance.

The opening, as the audience is led by strange, incanting men through cold and shady tunnels, is brilliant. Another man sits above the walkway and snippets of Shakespeare’s prologue waft through the dusty dungeon. Shakespeare is a great one for setting the scene and Belt Up Theatre re-imagine this portentous opening spectacularly well.

But as soon as the action settles and the story attempts to work its magic, the trickery stops working. With few sound effects or lighting – and a director (Alexander Wright) who seems intent on making the audience walk between every scene – it is difficult for the audience, play or atmosphere to settle. At moments this feels like snatched scenes from a larger production. This is because, although Belt Up Theatre have cut a lot of Shakespeare’s script, they have remained faithful to the extant text. It means the dialogue flows oddly (Dominic Allen, as Macbeth, whizzes through his words at an extraordinary pace) and the production feels erratic, sometimes rushed.

The doubling, from a cast of only four men, further confuses things. If I didn’t know the play, I’d find it tough to guess who had killed whom. The area the doubling works best is with James Wilkes’ dazzling turn as Lady Macbeth. Although Wilkes is one of the few actors required to play a female role, his is the stand out performance. He is delicate, holds himself elegantly and plays Lady Macbeth as a practical, devoted wife. Her madness, when it comes – as Lady Macbeth scrubs and scrubs by an abandoned sink in the depths of their prison – is exhilarating, convincing and sad.

The other scenes that tingle are those with the three witches. This might be because the witches work, distinct from the play; Shakespeare’s story need not make sense for the witches to frighten. All three are played by men (which allows a nice joke with the line, ‘You should be women, And yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so.’), who chant incessantly and, in their bedraggled attire, look like the tramps of the dungeon. As Macbeth’s prophesies start to turn in on him, a sole witch appears in a hollowed out section of the cell. He drops wax onto his hand and watches it sizzle and, with this image, the cruel magic working on and around Macbeth flickers into life.


Till 8 May 2011


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