Belt Up Theatre is quickly becoming known for its immersive theatre, which seeks to allow audiences to break out of the traditional forms of theatre and into a world dominated by spatial configurations, inventive narrative and character-driven pieces. Its recent production of The Beggar’s Opera at the Takeover Festival showed the energy that this emerging company can bring into the theatrical landscape. Upon hearing of its latest experiment, a four-handed all-male Macbeth in the vaults of the House of Detention in Clerkenwell, a former prison with tunnels and vaults aplenty, a cold chill ran down my spine. How could one of Shakespeare’s most wickedly sinister tragedies, full of of bloody murders and mental breakdowns, not seek to find its place in the House of Detention?
It is an interesting choice for Belt Up Theatre to create an all-male production and to keep it so tightly wound up in character transformation through using just the four players. Alexander Wright’s direction keeps the actors on their feet as they navigate not only the candle-lit tunnels of the venue, but also in the changing of characters from scene to scene. This ultimately becomes one of the weaknesses to the production; the lack of a solid character to truly grasp onto. Whilst Dominic Allen’s Macbeth is strong in places, (most notably when responding to the actions of others), as the leading character he doesn’t command the piece as much as you’d hope for. Wright has Allen and the rest of the cast shouting and using the acoustics within the vaults, without exploring the softer, quieter moments of troubled mind states that is so required in the emotional and physical breakdown of Macbeth’s mind and power.
Whilst I would have liked for the production to feature a female presence or two, James Wilkes’s Lady Macbeth is wonderfully engrossing. There is something in Wilkes’s staring eyes, and continuous hand washing that drives the narrative deeper. Wilkes might be a grand Lady Macbeth and justified in playing a female character, but the three witches offer little of the sinister approach that Shakespeare so alludes too. There is no cackling, no true magic produced, and if anything they represent the forgotten captives of the prison in which Belt Up Theatre has staged Macbeth, but this does nothing to chill its audience.
Given that the House of Detention offers plenty of sinister tunnels, vaults, and an atmosphere most directors would kill for for Macbeth, Belt Up Theatre seems to only half-use the potential. The acoustics are fantastic, and as the best part of the production is staged in candlelight there is an air of mystery and troubled souls afloat, yet this doesn’t seep into the acting, or direction. The energy within the crumbling walls should empower the murderous production, but for me, it only went to suck the real life, and yes, blood, guts and gore out of it. Even the appearance of Banquo dripping in blood and naked was little of a reveal, and more of a theatrical device to attempt to ‘scare’.
It was clear to me that whilst the venue was right, the uses of it had gone amiss in the process. It’s kind of sad to see the potential that Macbeth by Belt Up Theatre offers, but to see it so clearly not there. Don’t get me wrong though, any person witnessing its work in Macbeth or its Edinburgh line-up will confess to knowing that Belt Up Theatre are a company that deserves the critical acclaim it receives. Macbeth may not have been right for me, but for those needing a diferent take upon Shakespeare the House of Detention mixed with Belt Up Theatre offers a theatrical treat – just don’t expect an emotionally wrenching evening. And wear a jumper.
Macbeth is playing at the House of Detention until 8th May on Thursdays and Fridays. For more information and to book tickets see the Southwark Playhouse website who are operating ticket sales.