Review: Macbeth at Temple Church

Having established a solid reputation for their atmospheric and stylish Shakespeare adaptations, it was perhaps only a matter of time before Antic Disposition turned their attention to Macbeth. Returning to London’s majestic Temple Church, Ben Horslen and John Risebero’s meticulously detailed production sets the action in the Victorian period, delving into the gender and class politics that lie behind this well-known tale of murderous ambition.

Photo credit: Scott Rylander

The first and most obvious twist in this tale is the repositioning of the three witches as servants within the royal household. This works incredibly well; safe in the knowledge that they’re as good as invisible to their superiors, the three women are able to become much more active players, observing and enabling the bloody chain of events they’ve unleashed while constantly hidden in plain sight. Robyn Holdaway, Bryony Tebbutt and Louise Templeton are a wonderfully sinister presence, gliding unseen on to the stage and responding with silent, malevolent satisfaction as each new blow in the struggle for power finds its mark.

At the head of a strong cast is Harry Anton’s intriguingly conflicted Macbeth. A commanding physical presence on stage, he’s also a thinker who never acts without first considering all implications, pronouncing each line of his soliloquies with great deliberation and control. This frequently – and understandably – irritates his wife, who’s much more capable of seizing the moment and turning it to her advantage. As with the witches, Helen Millar’s performance is beautifully detailed, her eyes and body language frequently communicating what she can’t say aloud. The dynamic between the two shifts back and forth – when they’re alone he’s submissive to her will, but in public she must step back and play the charming hostess, and her frustration at having to rely on her husband to get the job done is palpable.

The rest of the cast offer strong support, with Andrew Hislop particularly impressive as a vengeful and grief-stricken Macduff, and Chris Courtenay an authoritative yet sympathetic Duncan. I also really enjoyed the touch of comedy brought to the role of Ross by Robert Bradley; his attempts at awkward small talk just before the discovery of Duncan’s body are all too relatable.

Photo credit: Scott Rylander

The production makes excellent use of the venue – though I imagine an evening performance would do so even more effectively than the matinee I attended. The action is presented on a traverse stage, with the audience frequently invited in as guests at the Macbeths’ feast or soldiers in the final battle. Admittedly there are a few issues with acoustics, particularly when actors are facing away – but that’s an occupational hazard in a building like this one and while a few lines of dialogue may be lost, ultimately it doesn’t detract from the atmosphere or impact of the performance. This is further heightened by James Burrows’ music, which subtly signposts the key dramatic moments without distracting from them.

Antic Disposition have set the bar pretty high with their previous work, but Macbeth certainly doesn’t disappoint – if anything, it begs a second visit to catch all the little details we may have missed first time around. A visually striking and deliciously creepy production with impressive performances across the board, this adaptation may make you look at Macbeth with fresh eyes. Failing that, it might just give you a nightmare or two – but it’s worth it.

Macbeth is at Temple Church until 7th September.

Review: Macbeth at Jacksons Lane

There’s a lot to like about Proteus Theatre’s original take on Macbeth, especially if you’re a fan of all things 80s. The action of Shakespeare’s tragedy has been transplanted to the cut-throat financial markets of London in 1987, inspired by the crash of Black Monday. Director Mary Swan’s vision is one that fits well with the story of Macbeth, in which power is everything and rivals will stop at nothing to come out on top – but despite some solid performances and strong design decisions, the production as a whole never quite takes off.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Unfortunately, this is largely due to an unconvincing portrayal of Macbeth by Riz Meedin. Though he does a decent enough job as the hen-pecked husband who’s browbeaten into regicide by his scheming, ambitious wife (Alexandra Afryea), the character never really develops beyond that. Even later in the play, his Macbeth still feels hesitant and not at all like the murderous tyrant hellbent on slaughtering men, women and children alike to secure his position. If anything, Danny Charles’ slightly sleazy Duncan and Jessica Andrade’s manipulative Malcolm come across as more threatening.

While both Charles and Andrade prove themselves adept at playing multiple parts (including a couple of very entertaining cameos), the play’s strongest performances come from Alexandra Afryea as Lady Macbeth – already at the brink of insanity when the play begins as a result of both her ambition and her grief for a lost child – and Umar Butt, in two very different guises as Banquo and Ross; his appearance as the ghost Banquo is one of the play’s most striking (and gruesome) scenes.

The 80s setting is cleverly worked in; each scene change is heralded by another classic hit, and the characters’ power suits and corded phones leave us with no doubt what decade we’re in. Instead of a crown, the current “king” is portrayed as a sort of mafia don figure with their coat draped across their shoulders, Macbeth snorts cocaine before murdering Duncan, and Banquo and Fleance head out for their fateful ride wearing motorcycle helmets. Katharine Heath’s clever multifunctional set design finds the characters first battling it out on the stock exchange trading floor (with Duncan and Scott on the rise; a nice detail) but with a few simple rearrangements transforms into a lift, an office, a dinner table and a phone box, among others.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith

The concept does slightly lose its way in the final battle, because it’s not really clear who’s fighting who, or how or where. The confrontation between Macduff and Macbeth also feels a bit anticlimactic, although the framing of Macbeth’s killing as a hit rather than a death in combat is interesting and gives the play’s conclusion an original new angle. There’s certainly no lack of drama, either, with Peter Harrison’s excellent lighting design bringing an intensity to the stage even at times when it’s missing from the performance.

Shakespeare’s work is so frequently performed that it’s refreshing to see a version like this one, which makes you consider a story you know well in a completely different way. It’s also great to see Shakespeare performed by an entirely BAME cast, something we still don’t see enough of in London. Tapping into the greed and corruption of the business world is a clever move, so it’s a pity that the production itself – though imaginatively staged – doesn’t always reflect the necessary ruthlessness to quite carry it off.

Interview: David Fairs and Anna Marsland, GOLEM!

“David Lynch colliding with The Godfather – and a bit of Cruel Intentions…” is David Fairs’ intriguing summary of GOLEM!’s second production. Following the success of last year’s Macbeths (check out my review for LondonTheatre1), the company are back at The Hope Theatre on 13th June with I Know You Of Old, a fresh take on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.

I took the original text and then built a new story out of it,” explains David, who also plays Benedick in the play. “So it only has three characters, and the starting point for our play is two weeks after the actual death of Hero. We pick up the night before her funeral, when Benedick, Beatrice and Claudio all encounter each other in the chapel of rest, and the whole play takes place over about twelve hours leading up to the funeral the next morning.”

“You don’t need to be familiar with Much Ado,” adds director Anna Marsland. “Our hope is that you’re coming to see a new play in which you know someone’s died and you know these three people are connected to her, and you’re uncovering the story as the play goes on. But my hope is that anyone who does know the play gets an added extra in terms of seeing that dialogue repurposed.”

GOLEM!’s first production, Macbeths, followed the same narrative as Shakespeare’s original but placed the Macbeths’ domestic relationship at the heart of the story. “I’d always had this fascination with examining Shakespeare’s great characters as real people who are brilliant examples of the human condition,” explains David. “So I just started to think about how we might do that, and the first thing that came to mind was Lady Macbeth, and I became really fascinated with the idea of isolating those two characters and seeing what story could be told.

“Then after MacbethsI started thinking about other relationships it would be interesting to isolate and examine. Much Ado is one of my favourite plays, and I was most interested in the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick, why they behave like that – they’re very entertaining but when you actually look at them, they’re very odd. They know each other so well that they can play whatever game they want, they can tactically pick up on what the other person is doing and destroy them with it. You have to know someone incredibly well to do that, and it was interesting to me to put that relationship into a pressurised environment.

“And the other element that’s always struck me as missing is a real deep examination of the shaming of Hero – because it’s something that occurs and is then forgotten. The thing that happens to her is horrendous; she’s destroyed on her wedding day by her father and her fiancé, and yet in that final scene nobody offers her an apology.”

So this play is putting that completely at the heart of it,” says Anna. “She’s been slut-shamed, she’s been destroyed – and that has gone so far that she’s died; that pain has killed her.”

Unlike Macbeths, development for I Know You Of Old has been a collaborative process from the start, with input from both David and Anna, along with fellow company members Sarah Lambie (Beatrice) and Conor O’Kane (Claudio). “Dave and I often have very similar instincts about things,” explains Anna. “I think we are artistically very much on the same page, and I think it’s important that we trust each other a lot. But I think that trust has allowed us to make that distinction quite smooth: I trust Dave to go off and write the thing – after we had the idea, we signed the contract to go and do it at The Hope and then I said, ‘Okay you need to write it now!’

“And we were quite strict with ourselves – workshop, second draft, workshop, rehearsal draft. And once the rehearsal draft is done, that’s when Dave hands it over to me. And of course there are little tweaks but the fundamental set-up and structure are there – and I feel like we’ve tested it as a piece of writing rigorously enough that now we’re in rehearsals I’ve got Dave the actor in the room, not Dave the writer.”

“I do implicitly trust Anna with the script and the play,” agrees David. “That became so evident immediately when we were doing Macbeths in that I had the script, but as soon as I gave it Anna to direct she brought things out of it that I hadn’t even dreamed of. So it’s a really nice process – I prepare it, we have that crossover period where we’re workshopping it, and we work out that we’re on the same page and streamline it down to that shared idea, and then I’m happy to hand it over.”

I’ve not really worked on a play in the same way before, in terms of being so involved with the actors who are going to be in it,” says Anna. “And as a company it feels like we had the luxury of a lot of development time, which has taken the pressure off rehearsals because we’ve had all those conversations over the last six months between the four of us about where this piece is heading.”

And what of those people who think Shakespeare is not to be messed with? “I have no problem with this being polarising, I think that’ll be very interesting,” says David. “And I don’t think there’s any disrespect in any of it – I’m very much coming from the point of view of someone who absolutely loves Shakespeare. He is my favourite playwright, my favourite thing to act and to watch. I have a huge amount of respect for him, and it doesn’t feel like that is in conflict with what I’m doing.

“None of this is arbitrary – the structure and form of this play is very much designed to almost be an extension and a compliment to Much Ado, not a rehash of it. I think you can revere Shakespeare and the words he wrote, without considering that it’s sacrilegious to do anything to the text. I love the idea that actually what he gave us was an incredibly rich raw material that is so brilliant that we actually don’t lose the DNA in the expansion of it.

I also love what previous – and the current – artistic directors have done with Shakespeare’s work at the Globe. Going back to Rylance, I love the idea that you can take this and you can play with it – the idea is that it’s something to be enjoyed and experimented with.”

“We wanted to take it a step further this time,” adds Anna. “The idea of setting up GOLEM! was about how much we can take a text and change it some way, and one way of doing that is this re-orchestration. And it’s how far we can push that, so there we just changed the text to the story of Macbeths and reshaped it; here we’re taking the text and the characters and some of the plot, and veering off in another direction. And I don’t know what the next step would be – maybe taking the text and telling a completely different story, or even taking multiple texts.”

Anna and David first worked together at university, an experience he remembers for one very specific reason… “My overriding memory of what Anna had me do was get covered head to toe in ice cream for the final scene of the play – but we discovered ice cream doesn’t look like ice cream when you’re covered in it. So ultimately I was covered in gallons of Angel Delight, performing in a theatre that didn’t have showers, and had to leg it across the city to a friend’s room and shower, then head back for a drink!

“Once the prospect of the R&D space for Macbeths became available at the Catford upon Avon festival last March, I obviously knew that we needed a director and Anna was top of my list to approach. I knew that she’d worked at the RSC and the Globe, and that she was London-based at the moment because she was – and still is – Resident Director on Curious Incident in the West End.”

“So it was quite a chance reunion in a way,” says Anna. “I love working on Shakespeare and I also really love prioritising those female stories in Shakespeare. So interests-wise and working-wise, it was just a happy collision really.”

And what’s next for GOLEM! after I Know You Of Old? “Our hope is that what we’ll end up with is two nice companion pieces – two adapted Shakespeare plays: one tragedy that’s become a love story and one comedy that now has a much darker heart,” says Anna. “And the idea is maybe to tour them as a double bill or a pairing that could be on alternate nights. We’re kind of hoping we might take them up to Edinburgh next year.”

“And another idea once we’ve finished this run, the next thing I’d be interested in looking at is a direct sequel to Macbeths, picking up and seeing where all of the characters might have ended up,” suggests David. “And potentially with this one forming a story and a script out of multiple plays, out of the whole canon, and seeing what story I can build.”

Book now for I Know You Of Old at The Hope Theatre from 13th June to 1st July.

Review: Macbeth at New Wimbledon Studio

Macbeth: the story of a man driven by personal ambition to destroy his friend and leader, and seize the crown for himself. Sweeping aside anyone who gets in his way, he ultimately leads his nation into civil war…

There could not have been a more pertinent day to see Arrows & Traps’ production of Macbeth at New Wimbledon Studio. Macbeth isn’t an easy watch at the best of times, but the events of the previous 24 hours lent last night’s performance an extra intensity that nobody could have foreseen, and took Ross McGregor’s adaptation from pretty dark to full-blown horror. (A brief addition to the script referencing the shock EU referendum result met with a split second of laughter, until we all remembered it was based in reality, and not actually very funny.)

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza
Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza

The irony of Shakespeare’s play is that Macbeth isn’t a totally bad guy (though not a particularly nice one either, obviously) but rather someone who allows himself to be led onto a dark path and discovers too late there’s no way back. As Macbeth and his wife, David Paisley and Cornelia Baumann are genuinely frightening – he’s full of violence and rage, while she’s cold and calculating, and together they spin a web of lies and commit crimes that are increasingly bloody and shocking. And yet the revulsion we feel is not without more than a hint of sympathy; both characters ultimately break under the weight of their guilt, and their passionate relationship of the opening scenes disintegrates into one of tension, fear and suspicion. It’s in these moments of vulnerability that Paisley and Baumann are at their most compelling; the pain they feel is palpable and devastating to witness.

It’s not just the Macbeths that are out to scare us, though; McGregor wanted his Macbeth to be one that’s all about fear, and he’s got his wish. The three witches, played by Elle Banstead-Salim, Olivia Stott and Monique Williams, are part-demon, part-seductress, and their regular appearances on stage throughout the play remind us who’s really in control of events. There’s no shortage of blood and gore from the start, and a few jumpy moments just to keep us on the edge of our seats. And then there’s Banquo’s ghost…

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza
Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza

In the kind of original twist that we’ve come to expect from Arrows & Traps, in this production almost all Macbeth’s victims are female – most notably Duncan (Jean Apps) and Banquo (Becky Black) – as are his hired assassins. Seeing this violence both from and against women is a shock to the audience, hammering home the depths to which Macbeth is driven in his thirst for power. And it puts a fresh perspective on the relationships in the play – both Duncan and Banquo are loving mothers who share tender moments with their sons, while we’re also led to wonder about the exact nature of Macbeth’s friendship with Banquo as the play begins.

Like the company’s previous production, Anna Karenina, the show’s a visual feast; there’s smoke and blood galore, and some intense physical scenes from fight director Alex Payne. The climactic scene of Macbeth’s death is particularly stunning, with choreography, movement and music coming together to turn a moment of violence into something quite beautiful from which it’s impossible to look away.

The set is simple – just a table at the centre of the stage – and without the need for elaborate set changes, the production moves along at a rapid pace. The overlapping of some moments is particularly effective, as is the use of freeze frame during the dinner scene, contrasting Macbeth’s dark intentions with the merriment of his guests. And music is used to great effect to add drama, giving the play a very cinematic feel that seems to extend far beyond the theatre’s small stage.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza
Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza

This is the third Arrows & Traps production I’ve seen, and each time I’m surprised and delighted by their unique, inventive take on classic works. Their Macbeth is a political and supernatural thriller that’s as gripping as any episode of Game of Thrones (the body count is about the same, too), and reminds us once again of Shakespeare’s continuing relevance 500 years after his death. As depressing as that relevance may occasionally be.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Interview: Ross McGregor, Arrows & Traps

Earlier this year, they took on Tolstoy, condensing the epic novel Anna Karenina into a gripping three hours, and somehow making the story manageable without losing any of its complexity or intensity. And for their sixth production, Arrows & Traps are returning to their Shakespearean roots with Macbeth, which runs from 14th June to 9th July at New Wimbledon Studio, and opens the company’s ‘Broken Crown’ season.

Arrows and Traps, Macbeth

The Macbeth cast reunites actors who’ve worked on previous productions – among them David Paisley and Cornelia Baumann (Anna Karenina), Jean Apps (The Taming of the Shrew) and Alex Stevens (Titus Andronicus) – and introduces several new members of the company. Director Ross McGregor welcomes this mix of old and new faces:

“We’re one of the few operating rep companies in the fringe, in that we have a base of returning actors that we use in every show. It’s delightful to have actors from last year’s Taming Of The Shrew, Titus Andronicus, and this year’s Anna Karenina coming back to work on Macbeth alongside our new blood. This is great for me as a director as it builds a shorthand in rehearsal, but it also gives actors just starting out in their careers a home to come back to hone their craft on some classic drama. They know that there’s always a place for them in Arrows & Traps, and for me there’s no greater honour or compliment than when an actor asks to work with you again. This may seem like a cliché, but six shows in, it does feel like a little theatre family.”

In addition, the cast will work once again with Offie-nominated Movement Director Will Pinchin, who’s been a member of the creative team on all of Arrows & Traps’ previous productions. “It’s an honour to have Will back for a sixth time, working with the witches and ghosts for the show; he’s producing some incredible work in rehearsal. I’ve known Will for almost seven years, and I’d never consider directing a show without him now. We work well as a pair, he sees things I don’t, and I can structure his creative mania – there’s very little wasted time in rehearsal because each of us has a good sense of what the other wants to do. He’s also a new father, so the fact that he can still devote time to the company when he should be fast asleep is a testament to his generosity.”

Photo credit: Beth Gibbs
Photo credit: Beth Gibbs

Following on from last year’s gender-reversed Taming of the Shrew, this version of Macbeth is a gender equal production – in fact, in an intriguing twist, McGregor’s cast includes more women than men. “Macbeth is normally a bit of a sausage fest in terms of casting, so it’s great to be able to offer so many roles to female actors. Both Duncan and Banquo have been made into female roles, and we’re loving the new opportunities and relationship impacts that these changes are making. For example, in our version, Banquo is a mother. Lady Macbeth has lost her child. How does that impact the relationship between the two women? Is there more of a connection between Banquo and Macbeth than just friends? Exactly who is jealous of whom?

“Duncan also has been opened up in so many interesting ways. She has that Margaret Thatcher feel to her: a bold, brave women in a cabinet of men who want her dead. Plus the thought of murdering Duncan is made even more harrowing if it’s an elderly woman in her bed. I was watching rehearsal a few days ago and was struck by the fact that the murder of Banquo is almost an entirely female staged spectacle of combat, and it’s a refreshing thing to be staging, even in an age when we’ve seen it all. I personally think it’s been a boys’ club for long enough. Give a girl a dagger.”

So what can audiences expect from this new version of a well known play? “Arrows & Traps has always been about making commercial entertainment that doesn’t lose its intelligence. I want to make shows that sell (name a theatre director that doesn’t), plays that people will have heard of, but that don’t lose their intellect or beauty for the sake of making it easier or shorter.

“I’m always struck by a common response I hear from people when asked if they go to the theatre. So many people say “I should. I should go more.” Like it’s the dentist. Like watching Hamlet is the theatrical equivalent of a root canal. Why is intelligent classic theatre seen as a dry duty for most people? It shouldn’t be. If Shakespeare had to compete with bear baiters and prostitutes and merchants all selling their wares in the theatre, his lines had to grab their attention. They had to fly. It’s our company goal to make commercial theatre that is as intelligent as it is entertaining. It’s got to be a live event. It’s got to be exciting. And if it’s Shakespeare and it’s done well, you’ve got to understand what they’re all saying. My hope is that Macbeth strikes this balance – both serving the beautiful text as well as being a rollercoaster ride.

Photo credit: Beth Gibbs
Photo credit: Beth Gibbs

“I also wanted to make a genuinely frightening production of the play, because for me it’s all about fear. A standard GCSE answer is that Macbeth is all about ambition, and whilst that’s true, the word ‘fear’ is mentioned more times in Macbeth than any other play in the canon. It’s the story of a man who literally unleashes fear into the world. It’s a story where people believe in ghosts and witches and damnation and spirits. This is not our world, this isn’t reality, it’s a different playing space, a place where Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers and Norman Bates live. A place where things go bump in the night, and all our worst nightmares come and sit down beside us whilst we’re having dinner.

“Olivier said that if you don’t believe in witches then there’s no point in doing Macbeth – and I think he’s right. I think you have to create a world where witches can feasibly exist and take the audience on a journey into the belly of the beast. It feels like a horror film to me. Full of jumps and bumps and frights and somewhere in the midst of the darkness is a cautionary tale about the dangers of desire. But then again, and this is the genius of Shakespeare, Macbeth is also about a couple on the verge of breakdown, and the lengths that two people will go to in order to save their marriage. So there’s a lot to love about the text, and everyone is operating in a shade of grey. I didn’t want there to be villains or clear cut baddies. I think in many ways the Macbeths are more likeable than the ‘heroes’ of the story, Macduff and Malcolm, even though they do despicable things. It’s really the great-great-great grandfather of House Of Cards.”

Book now to see Macbeth at New Wimbledon Studio from 14th June to 9th July.