Plays are often sold as ‘interactive’ or ‘atmospheric’ but none will be able to compete with this version of Macbeth for those two adjectives. Belt Up Theatre’s version is performed in a preserved Victorian prison that has been closed to the public for years. The typical idea of theatre has been re-imagined. You never stay in the same part of the pitch black underground complex for more than a few scenes as you follow the candle-wielding actors from one part of the prison to another and aside from one scene, you are walking the whole time. You genuinely feel 'in the drama' as you solemnly follow the actors and take in the eerie, damp stone walls. Indeed, the prison is unused except for TV productions, and should be a future obvious choice for stage productions.
The cast is very small, with only four actors in the whole production. It manages to succeed despite this, with all the actors diverse enough to make it work. Only Dominic Allen has a single role, as the murderous and scheming Macbeth, and he plays his role with authority. His delivery and movement are powerful, and he becomes more assured as he murders his way to the top. The remaining cast have a more difficult challenge, particularly Serena Manteghi, who is Lady Macbeth, Lady Macduff and the lead witch. She is excellent, but appears visibly tired at the end from having three major roles. Joe Hufton, who is Banquo, Malcolm and a witch, has the versatility required with such a small cast. Sam Connolly (Duncan, Macduff, a witch and other minor roles) has few costume changes, and his roles are not easily distinguishable, but he does a fine job in his intense and angry standoff with Macbeth. Overall though, the production could have done with one more actor to take some of the burden off of the three supporting actors.
The play is intimate, with actors mixing with the audience, no more than ten feet away at any given time. This allows them to be more facially expressive and use quieter, more natural tones as opposed to the usual bellowing and voice throwing that often removes the natural sounds from Shakespearian language.
The production is full of shocks. The only part of the prison with seating sees the small audience seated as Macbeth’s dinner guests. Other individual moments stack up nicely too, such as the grisly and realistic strangling of Lady Macduff. She writhes and fights before having the breath squashed out of her. Macbeth even draggs the corpse along the floor into a nearby cell. The fully naked Banquo ghost shocks everyone as does the candlelit circle which sees the witches (played by the remaining cast) entrance the title character.
The costumes are conservative, with Director David Calvitto leading on these with Rosie Townsend. They opt for a military feel, with officer uniforms and stasi-esque behaviour, very much like Rupert Goold’s acclaimed production a few years ago. The play is a masterpiece in direction and stage management with so much activity, even with actors appearing like ghosts in crevices in the old prison. Each part of the deceptively large complex offers something new and much thought has gone into the setting where acoustics differed to enhance scenes. Props are at a bare minimum, as are music and sound.
This is a must-see performance, and runs in the House of Detention, Clerkenwell until May 18.
Bring a thick jumper as a damp Victorian prison doesn’t exactly sing heat, and leave early as the theatre is well hidden amongst the old streets of Dickens’s London. It is a haunting and brilliantly fresh production of a very well (some say over) used play.