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: Richard III at Temple Church

Antic Disposition certainly know how to make a good first impression. Temple Church, their home for the next two weeks, is another majestic, beautiful and powerfully historic setting for the company’s production of Shakespeare’s Richard III – and brings to an end their most recent tour of some of the UK’s most stunning cathedrals.

Fortunately, the awe-inspiring venue is more than matched by the quality of the show, which is utterly absorbing from start to finish. Based on the probably completely untrue history of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the play recounts his bloody path to the throne as he gradually eliminates every other heir in his way, before being defeated at Bosworth Field by the future King Henry VII.

This modern interpretation reimagines the royal family and their entourage as well-heeled city types, and even without the little topical details – which include a comedy mayor called Boris, and a competitive handshake Donald Trump would be proud of – the point being made is clear. Our leaders may no longer send each other to the executioner’s block, but the ruthlessness of those who seek power for their own ends is just as dangerous today as it was 500 years ago.

At the head of a fantastic cast is Toby Manley as the murderous monarch, in a performance so charming that it’s easy to see how he keeps getting his way. Watching him, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Andrew Scott’s Moriarty in Sherlock; he plays his part so well that you can forget how evil he actually is – if not for the occasional furious outbursts that expose the crazed ambition lurking within. And in case that doesn’t do the job, a glance down the aisle reveals a silent army of vengeful ghosts, as each of Richard’s victims rises from the grave to take his or her place and wait for an opportunity to have their revenge.

This simple yet powerfully effective device from directors Ben Horslen and John Risebero not only helps keep track of the rising body count, but also contributes to the play’s sense of impending doom as we build towards a spine-tingling climax. And they’re not alone, as Louise Templeton’s Queen Margaret, draped in the flag of her dead husband and son’s royal house, appears regularly on stage like Hamlet’s ghost to ensure justice is done.

Perhaps surprisingly in a play so full of violence, there’s also a lot of humour, in the dramatic, semi-hysterical posturing of Joe Eyre’s Buckingham, who could be mistaken for a radical religious preacher as he makes the speech that secures Richard’s place on the throne. And Robert Nairne’s Catesby, who’s transformed for this production into a no-nonsense security man, enjoys some fun interaction with the audience as he hands out flags for the young princes’ arrival, before smugly presenting the two moody teenagers with an XBox to keep them quiet.

It’s clear from both the production and the directors’ programme notes that there’s a topical subtext to be found in Antic Disposition’s interpretation of Richard III. But this message is applied subtly enough – for the most part – that anyone who simply wants to see an excellent and very accessible production of Shakespeare’s historical play will find themselves more than satisfied. It takes some doing to put together a performance so gripping that it can distract from such an amazing venue – but while the setting certainly adds atmosphere, the true star of this show is the show itself.


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