The spectre of Punchdrunk was always going to hang over the overnight adaption of Macbeth by theatre company RIFT (née Retz), but gladly this 12-hour-plus experience manages to be firmly individual. Shakespeare’s text remains mostly intact, and inside the grainy Balfron Tower setting is used to create something aside from the norm. But while the overall design of the show and Felix Mortimer’s direction do create an evening of entertainment and surprises, it lacks a sense of reality that prevents it from being truly captivating.
Mortimer has said that he doesn’t feel his work is immersive – and I would agree. Although the action of the play becomes engrossing when guns are pointed us or you’re rubbing shoulders with Banquo’s ghost, you never quite feel immersed in this world, nor can you for a second truly believe that it is real. But there’s plenty to like about the world in which we find ourselves, even if it never quite swallows you whole. The brief moments of audience interaction are, at times, the most thrilling of the evening, and the design of the Macbeths’ apartment particularly makes for an atmospheric and believable environment for the action to unfold.
Often, the company actually manages to pull off a lot of the production’s gimmicks, especially during the banquet and apparition scenes. Credit must also go to the stewards, who, although bogged down by ‘Bordurian’ accents – Borduria is “the country that contains all fictional stories”, and is a large if not confusing aspect of the Macbeth experience – enthusiastically and efficiently travel with us through the story. Guests will see one of three sets of Macbeths; ours, Humphrey Hardwicke and Lowri James, gave performances strong enough to mesh with the setting, but neither rely on it or overshadow it.
Mostly, the meat of the play is enough to get sunk into and, at times, really feel involved in. But the practicalities and form of the evening do, in some ways, prevent Macbeth from really gaining the audience’s emotional investment. When we’re actually watching and involved in the content, it’s great. As an experience in itself – helped significantly by the mere act of sleeping over in the tower – Macbeth is a great deal of fun and even frightening at times; ample for fans of interactive or site specific theatre. But some of the play’s key scenes or speeches are glossed over, either in an attempt to make the delivery seem informal or intimate, or because of logistical issues. An overlong sequence with a television set really did take away from the production, and it also allowed us as audience members to chat casually about the play itself, which left us in a cross between fiction and complete and utter awareness that it was theatre in a different setting.
Intimate moments in the production are great ones, like those that come in the form of an excellent ritual scene with the witches, and the setting itself is enough of a novelty to keep us interested most of the time. But there does feel like an awfully large amount of being shepherded into a room, left there waiting, shown a few scenes, and being moved off again. As an audience, we were constantly compartmentalised room by room. Perhaps I had too optimistically expected a larger degree of freedom. But while we did feel a part of the action, it felt a little too much like a tour of Macbeth, and less like an experience. Still, if you take the production with the right degree of seriousness, audiences can have a really thrilling time, in a world that does, if not immerse you, grip you for the night that you are there.
Macbeth is playing Balfron Tower throughout July and August. For more information and tickets, see RIFT’s website.