The Attic Theatre
Playing until April 24
I have seen many appalling and ridiculous productions of Macbeth, maybe more of this play than of any other. Peter O’Toole knocking down the set at The Old Vic and Jane Horrocks being required to wee on a raised walkway at Greenwich Theatre before some ‘gentlewomen’ mopped it up are memorable for all the wrong reasons. More recently in Stratford we saw King Duncan in Act I receive a messenger lying in bed with children round the bed; we saw another Stratford production with children in nets/trapeses and gawped at Macbeth at the top of a stepladder on an empty stage in Act V spouting words of sound and fury.
This production by Tread the Boards Company is memorable for all the right reasons. It is great to see Shakespeare back at The Attic and even greater that the opening nights of the production played to good houses. Long may it last for the month’s run because it deserves full houses. Directed by John-Robert Partridge, there is plenty of power but no gimmickry. All the tricky bits are dealt with amazingly well. No one laughed at ‘he has killed me, mother’, because sensibly Macduff’s son did not run off stage at that point: a blindingly obvious but rarely seen interpretation.
I have to admit that my heart always sinks in anticipation of Act IV, scene iii, the scene where Malcolm is testing out Macduff. It almost always seems interminable, Malcolm’s ruse too extreme and unlikely and the announcement of the death of Lady Macduff and her children a jarring interruption. Not so here. John-Robert Partridge did the bold thing of playing Macduff – the hardest part to play – himself and the interplay between himself as Macduff and Ben Armitage as a powerful but restrained Malcolm was electric. Added to this was Ross’s intrusion with restrained posture and verse beautifully spoken by Edward Manning so I was forced to think again. The power of the scene was enhanced by the memory of a heavily pregnant Lady Macduff splendidly played by Catherine Prout, even more poignant to those in the know who realised that the Macduffs were being played by a real life husband and wife.
There are all sorts of other lovely things in this production. Pete Meredith’s interactions as Banquo with Fleance were beautiful. Phil Leach was a credible King Duncan and Daniel Wilby an effective Macbeth who runs in and out of psychosis throughout the play. He demonstrates his confusion between internal and external reality by the technique of splitting his sentences and communications into fragments, with gaps in meaning – a clever technique. I was fascinated by what appeared to be an empty alcohol beaker underneath the witches’ cauldron and that alcohol was poured into it. It became a psychological fire of alcohol which made the combination of magic and fate work, linking the earlier references to ‘drunk’ and the porter’s later references.
The relationship between the Macbeths is always key to the success of a production. Instead of going for the now rather clichéd metaphor of sex as a metaphor for violence and vice versa, there was always an emotional distance between this couple and as audience members we were never quite convinced by the sincerity of the kisses between them. Alexandra Whitworth was psychologically convincing as Lady Macbeth, her coldness and detachment clearly ultimately leading to her madness and suicide. John-Robert Partridge was brilliant as Macduff: very still physically with piercing but deep set probing eyes.
But there were other surprises for me. The play went at a cracking pace. Even Act IV, scene iii didn’t halt its forward progress. The three witches (Sarah Feltham, Sally Hyde Lomax and Clara Lane) were a spooky presence throughout. Partridge used them several times to underscore a scene’s mood. They all three played other parts but Partridge sometimes used costume changes and sometimes didn’t. The best idea was when Witch 2 (Sally Hyde Lomax) played the Porter (for me usually the second most tedious scene in the play) but here because we thought witch when we saw porter we had external and internal evil combined – inside and outside the castle, inside and outside the mind. A great idea. Another nifty idea was to have the temple-haunting martlet bit spoken by Banquo to Fleance – cutting the need for extra characters but maintaining the mood. I also enjoyed the interaction between Pete Meredith’s Doctor and Ciara Lane’s Gentlewoman in Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene. The apparitions were presented in a mimed pageant almost in the dark, another brilliant way in which Partridge created metaphor by physical means.
The battle scenes are done with energetic mime, perfect for the confined space of The Attic and there is a splendid sword fight towards the end resulting in Macbeth crawling off. It is fitting that the drama ends with the witches, this time throwing Macbeth’s bagged head on stage.
But the abiding memory of this production for me will be its atmosphere. Kat Murray’s lighting design was about as complex as possible in The Attic and Elliott Wallis’s sound design quite wonderful. There was sound all through but it never became obtrusive. Lights, sound and human actions and voices combined in perfect harmony.
A shorter version of this review appeared in the Stratford Herald on 31 March.