There’s a lot of superstition attached to Macbeth in the theatre. Whether this is down to the spirits causing mischief, the dark energy attached or simply theatre management choosing the title to replace a flopping show, actors and theatre makers alike utter its title in the theatre at their peril. Maybe removing it from its traditional footlights has helped give Insane Root’s production, playing at the Redcliffe Caves until the 14th July, some of its good karma. For its a powerful, atmospheric and brutal watch, the most exciting version of the play I’ve seen since Rupert Goold’s 2007 Chichester production took the West End and Broadway by storm.
Director Hannah Drake’s and Producer Justin Palmers master-stroke is to gain permission to stage the piece in the heart of Redcliffe Caves, providing a location eerie and fascinating enough, with its craggy jagged edges and thousands of years of history, to frame the play in. With low stage lighting and candles flickering, supernatural sprites and cold blooded plotting, the seven strong cast garbed in the medieval bring to mind ratings juggernaut Game Of Thrones reminding us that Shakespeare casts a long grip even now on the most popular of culture.
The cave’s also assist in making the witches as terrifying as I’ve seen them, with their wailing soundscapes bouncing off the walls and appearing from nowhere, their faces shrouded , otherworldly figures that should have Ben Crispin’s Macbeth running for terror instead of fulfilling their gory prophesies. Crispin begins as a matinee idol, long flowing blonde hair and masculine bonhomie before he begins to twist as the prophesies come true becoming both King and dictator. By the end he is a twisted shell of a man, incapable of anything but slaughter, as he hears of the death of his wife, his eyes flicker but for a second with the emotion of a different an but soon harden again, his fragile hold upon the crown is all.
It’s promenade style allows us to encounter the play in close up and really helps Drake tackle some of the more complex set pieces. In particular the difficult England scene in Act IV where Macduff’s fundamental goodness is tested by King in exile Malcolm comes alive when you are inches away from the actors, each flicker of the eye and frown revealing the distrust and suspicion that a nation at war creates. The moment that Chris Donelly finds out his wife and child have been slaughtered is heart breaking as his voice cracks and his eyes glisten, a warrior brought low by the destruction of those most dear. His eventual showdown with Crispin is vicious and basked in emotion, two great warriors battling to the death in a most personal of blood feuds.
The violence is palpable and Drake delays in showing it, relegating Banquo’s murder to offstage, until the Macduff’s meet their fate in a mass of stabbing and neck breaking that felt especially sickening on a day of tragedy in Britain. The fight choreography by Zachary Powell who also plays a humorous Banquo is effective; messy and real, a mile away from the balletic compositions that can sometimes frustrate in the main house productions.
Not everything works. The chemistry between Crispin and his Lady Nicola Stuart-Hill is lacking, the passion and sexual pull that should drive them both not coming across, so that when she is eventually relegated from the tale she has helped tell, it lacks the killer blow. Hill also pitches the performance close to hysteric too early, she finds herself with nowhere left to go after she has put everything on the table from the first.
Still the great plays are impossible to fully nail and this is a thrilling evening of theatre. Drake has been gradually making a name for herself in the South West since graduating and this is the production that demands she be given a leg up to the next rung of the ladder. In the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death here is a production that fully does justice to the Bard’s most exciting play.