Saturday, April 30, 2011

Macbeth at Clerkenwell House of Detention

There has been a prison on this site in Clerkenwell since the 17th century (remembered in the main these days for an act of terrorism in 1867 by the Fenian Society that left many dead). Rebuilt a number of times over the years it was eventually torn down in the late nineteenth century and replaced with a school, which has since been palimpsested further into covetable flats: a glossy, gated space. But, beneath all that, the prison vaults remain untouched, a warren of linking rooms and tunnels and the site of Belt Up’s latest production.

Founded in 2008, the York-based company are prolific and urgent in their work, eager to experiment, to strive, to reach, even if it means making the occasional misstep, over-stretching. In 2010, during the Edinburgh Fringe, they took over a space in C Soco, named it The House Above and adapted it, filled it, staging a mini-festival of their own making.

The lure of the House of Detention as a performance space is immediately obvious. The twitch of excitement begins even as you negotiate the winding roads of Clerkenwell, still adhering to their medieval curves, and discover the small door, the narrow flight of stairs leading down. Inside, the space is part cavern, part crypt, with a damp cellar smell and the chill of old stone; the must of years. Alexander Wright’s production has not simply been parachuted in, as is sometimes the case with theatre in found spaces; it’s clear that considerable thought has gone into the choreography of the scenes and into how to best utilise the peculiar acoustics of the place. Curtains of creeping mist make it difficult to gauge the lay-out while clanks and moans drift from distant corners, grunts and drums, the scrape of a blade on the flagstone floor, voices that summon and pursue. A melancholic wailing, the chorus of the weird sisters, acts as a sickly siren song, beckoning performers and audience alike, permeating the production. These creatures, when we see them, are more like apparition than witches, timeless things, bloodied and twitching.

The space is lit by low-wattage bulbs and the flicker of candle light. The effect is visually rich, chiaroscuro, faces patterned by shadow, bodies half-buried in the murk; scenes often terminate with a snuffing out of flames.

Staged with a cast of four and hurtling through the text, Belt Up’s Macbeth is rapid and rattling. It’s also an all-male affair: Dominic Allen is quietly charismatic in the title role while company co-founder James Wilkes resists the urge to overplay as Lady Macbeth; there’s a prim quality to his performance that works particularly well and periods of relative calm are used to counterbalance the sudden bursts of violence.

The promenade nature of the production has a degree of appeal (there’s a potent sense of being led, deeper and deeper into a dark world) but it also has its pitfalls. There’s a fair amount of uncertain shuffling and neck-craning on the part of the audience. It’s all too easy to miss chunks of dialogue as one negotiates pillars and the frequent movement around the space, coupled with the repeated need to resettle, to find one’s patch of flagstone, can have a distancing effect. The ominous echoes, all those ghostly clangs and wails, at times skirt close to cliché but the final scenes (one of the few moments where the audience are penned in place, their gaze directed) have a brutal intensity, a shadowy slasher flick vibe that’s thematically apt.

The production is, ultimately, most memorable for the space itself – the adventure of it, its time-bending quality, the way in which it scratches London’s surface – but this wouldn’t be anywhere close to the case were it not for some imaginative and space-sympathetic thinking on the part of the company.

Tickets are available through the Southwark Playhouse website.

Reviewed for Exeunt

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