I walked into the Lion and Unicorn Pub in Kentish Town a little confused. I wondered how a theatre housed in a pub could work, I worried Shakespeare’s masterful Macbeth would not fare well in so restrictive a space and that these limitations would impact upon the success of the play itself. However, the theatre, a small drama-room annex above the pub, was to house the performance with such intimacy and intensity that the New London Company’s Macbeth became one of the most thrilling, most exciting and most impressive adaptations of Shakespeare I have ever seen.
As the bloody war against the Norwegians is won, traitors to the crown are killed and King Duncan of Scotland celebrates victory with his political and military elite, Fate –with alarming speed – unravels the frayed remains of comradeship and severs irrevocably the bonds of duty and brotherly love which once bound all who served Duncan so tightly. For newly proclaimed Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth, the bloodlusts of battle and glories of victory remain fresh on the blade and in the mind. Subject to the witches’ ambiguous prophecy, the power-hungry urges of his own wife and the increasing megalomania simmering unseen within him, Macbeth takes steps to secure his destiny, but in doing so, he only moves further towards his fatal downfall.
As the New London Company’s Macbeth begins, so does a game of Russian roulette: as the gun’s chamber spins, stopping with a soft click, a steady-handed Macbeth (played by Ben Kavanagh) stares down the barrel. The trigger is pulled, no bullet comes. At the play’s end, a desperate man shakily sticks the same gun to his forehead and pulls the trigger, but this time it is loaded. The man is Macbeth but the change from militant to monster is now utterly complete. Macbeth’s forced suicide is an ingenious addition from director Scott Ellis, and with it immediate questions of the validity of the witches’ prophecy, their authority, and the desires and actions of Macbeth are raised. The play’s dramatic climax centres upon Macbeth removed from all external pressures: does destiny even play a hand when deliberate human intervention forces fate to change course? Kavanagh’s Macbeth is so subtle every doubt whispered and every glance draws the audience inwards –it is impossible to resist. The directorial skill is so high, and Kavanagh’s acting (alongside an equally talented cast) so effective, that the audience are complicit in every single action that occurs onstage.
The creativity in Macbeth is most clearly shown through its depiction of the witches. Drunken and cross-dressing, the hags are reminiscent more of stag-do members than supernatural beings; their chanting is corrupted into a liquor-fuelled karaoke. The unexpected comedy which revolves around the witches’ scenes augments the surrealist madness which infects all in the play. This exploration of the witches’ dubious motives makes Macbeth’s outlook appear naïve; backed up by the desperate appeals and wonderings which riddle his soliloquies, Kavanagh engages the audience with such success that we feel involved yet helpless, swept up alongside Macbeth in his quest for power. Tamara Astor’s portrayal of the Porter is refreshing and the employment of almost slapstick comedy does not disjoint the smooth transitions from scene to scene, bringing worthwhile comment to the progression of the play. Natasha McClure’s Lady Macbeth is softly spoken but crafty. Also notable is Banquo played by Johan Munir with a cool, calculated intelligence.
New London Company’s Macbeth is really something quite special. The transverse seating in the claustrophobic space above an unassuming pub draws Shakespeare into dramatic close-up where every syllable rings out only metres from the audience. The result is exhilarating and the experience seriously recommendable.
Macbeth is playing at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre until 7 July. For more information and tickets, see the Lion and Unicorn Theatre website.