Guildford Shakespeare Company’s Macbeth tells a story, and it tells that story very well. There is no ‘concept’ foisted on the production, but neither is the text the only thing on offer. This Macbeth is theatrical, unashamedly so. Under Caroline Devlin’s direction, a strong cast and an equally strong production team create a fast-paced, engaging show.
Holy Trinity Church (yes, a church---more on that later), home to previous successful productions such as Hamlet and Richard III (both also directed by Devlin), finds itself yet again creatively transformed. Designed by Sarah Bacon, a raised, diamond stage rests in the centre of the sanctuary, audience seated on all four sides. Toward the altar stands another rectangular stage, useful for entrances and tableaux (Duncan on the throne; the dinner banquet). The decision to play Macbeth almost-but-not-quite in the round leads to some stunning moments. As Tom McGovern’s Macbeth frets on the central stage, having just committed murder, Johanne Murdock’s Lady Macbeth suddenly appears near the altar, framed by the rood screen, her hands pointed outward, palms covered in blood.
Large wooden hatched freestanding structures tower over the audience, providing a place for two of the three weird sisters (Ben Ashton, Matt Pinches) to hover while the third (Hayley Doherty) conjures on the centre stage. The sisters are well-conceived, agile, and surprisingly vulnerable. The spell to call up the Birnam wood prophecy leaves the sisters huddled together, their energy sapped. The trio is especially effective in its movement, aided by excellent work from movement director Vanessa Cook.
The costumes (also by Bacon) are medieval-ish with dark modern twists—chain mail tops with black army boots, for instance. As with the rest of the production values, the costumes are well-executed and serve the story without encumbering it.
And what a story. The play runs at a crisp two hours (not including interval), with the action never abating. The eight-member cast (plus an ensemble of five) are kept on their toes with a flurry of costume and character changes. McGovern as Macbeth moves constantly about the stage. He and Murdock achieve a gripping tension in the post-murder scene, treating the dialogue as something out of a modern play, with rapid-fire delivery. Murdock’s Lady Macbeth has a strong, clear arc, and a fully believable descent into madness. Ben Aston as Malcolm and Morgan Philpott as Macduff bring a dark stillness to their duologue.
Devlin never pulls her punches—the fights by fight director Philip d’Orleans are grim and bloody. Banquo (the very good Noel White) meets a particularly stomach-churning end. An eerie soundscape of bagpipes and unnerving, hollow music underprops the production (compliments of sound designer Matt Eaton). Lights by Declan Randall are equally atmospheric and creative--when Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane, it's a sight to behold.
Recent productions of Macbeth have included: Macbeth in a prison; Macbeth in a riot; Macbeth in underground tunnels; Macbeth with a giant cloth over the audience. But there’s something disturbing, twisted, and powerful about Macbeth in a church. After Duncan’s murder, Randall lights the cross above the rood screen in a lurid, provocative red. The juxtaposition of the religious surroundings and the often jarring stage action—witches!—murder!—highlights the extent to which otherworldly forces are mentioned, and at work in, the play. At the same time the explicitly religious setting provides a framework for understanding Macbeth’s rise and fall: evil is evil, and it is allowed to be so, but it is overcome in the end.
Guildford Shakespeare Company has an established history of very solid productions, and this Macbeth is no exception. With keen attention to production values, strong acting, and the theatrical experience, the Company gets to the heart of good storytelling.