The decision to stage Macbeth in a church is deliberate and powerful. The stage rises up in a long aisle between the facing pews. The audience are transformed into a congregation bearing witness to sin. Through the stained glass windows the fading daylight draws us into night, mirroring the fated Macbeth succumbing to his dark and ruinous ambitions.
In Shakespeare’s tragedies, characters grapple and inevitably fail against forces beyond the mortal realm; fate, death, magic etc. Setting this tale in a place where people seek salvation from the divine makes this defeat ultimately more visceral.
High contrast light casts long shadows on the walls; voices ring out and echo up into the towering rafters and the cast are dressed in Victorian attire evoking the spine-chilling anticipation of a Gothic ghost story. Our gaze flickers from corner to corner, seeking out shapes in the darkness. Evildoers lurk in these shadows.
Macbeth (Harry Anton) and Lady Macbeth (Helen Millar) display raw sexuality in early scenes but Millar quickly establishes herself as the dominant character and gives the standout performance of the pair. Her hair is drawn severely off of her face sharpening her features and emphasising her piercing gaze. She is volatile, quick to rage or to fly into tears. Less the calculated femme fatale, we see an already fractured woman whose eventual spiral into insanity simmers just beneath the surface.
She makes an explosive foil for the steady corrupting poison of The Witches influence. Dressed as maids, the Witches (Louise Templeton, Bryony Tebbutt and Robyn Holdaway) drift soundlessly in and out of scenes, attending on King Duncan (Chris Courtenay), delivering messages to Lady Macbeth and watching their undoing with a private amusement amongst themselves. This interpretation skilfully draws them further into the action, masterminding the unsuspecting characters where the text has portrayed them as remote.
The eponymous lead of the piece gives a disappointing performance highlighted by the strong cast behind him. In the first half Anton does not emotionally commit to the frenzy, hunger and conflict of Macbeth. His movements subdued, his delivery at times lacklustre. As the character whose journey we most closely follow, his withheld performance affects our investment. This is sadly not remedied in the second half, where he just shouts a bit more.
When both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth make their dark vows, they face the Altar as though addressing the cross in place for regular service. The line of fiction and reality is blurred, we are drawn in as co-conspirators and the soliloquies have the urgency of a confession.
The rest of the company perform with slick pace and excellent chemistry. Macduff (Andrew Hislop) is another standout performance with poise, sensitivity and a stirring voice. The scene in which he receives word of his family’s murder is by far the emotional climax of the piece, thereby overshadowing Lady Macbeth’s “Out, damn’d spot!” speech.
Lighting by John Risebero is used as an indicator of morals. With scenes in court taking place in warm light, Macbeth’s soliloquies in high contrast to indicate his inner turmoil and Lady Macbeth barely lit. This makes for pleasing imagery but is rather literal. The stripped back staging at times feels a little sparse with none of the spectacle of Birnam Wood converging on Dunsinane evoked in speech alone. Additionally Risebero’s compositions, whilst leading scenes neatly along, are too infrequent and the piece could have benefitted from more music.
This performance has exciting fight scenes, effective hauntings and excellent performances, but without a compelling Macbeth to drive the piece forward, and too much reliance on its venue, it fails to reach its full potential.
Macbeth is playing Temple Church until 7 September. For more information and tickets, visit the Antic Disposition website.