MACBETH Theatre in the forest, Sutton Hoo

THE SCOTTISH PLAY ON ANCIENT TURF

    “This castle hath a pleasant seat..”   Indeed it does:  Red Rose Chain’s traditional outdoor show now lives alongside the mysterious mounds where the Anglo-Saxon warrior king lay with his jewelled sword.  It’s a marvellous site, a tiered arena (much recycled )  and even more recycled set: the castle is built of an old van and doors and floors from previous shows ;   the gas-bottle bell in the tower is supported by the gravedigger’s spade from their Hamlet.     As we settle, the clown-ragged cast are playing beach-cricket with a guitar and a smiley yellow ball which shortly will represent  the Thane of Cawdor’s head on a pike.  As silence falls and Jack Heydon’s Macbeth takes up his accordion they explain in chorus, with washboard and tin-can accompaniment ,   that this is “A tale told by idiots, signifying nothing…..lighting fools to dusty death..strutting and fretting this hour upon the stage’.   

       The larking, and that chant mischievously pre-echoing Macbeth’s Act 5 speech,  make clear Joanna Carrick’s directorial vision.  It’s out of doors, it’s  a summer show with witches in it,  it’s old old story re-enacted  with almost mumming-play irreverence in ragamuffin costumes.   But Carrick respects the text,  and a remarkable professional discipline marks everything.  The cast tearing manically around the set and auditorium are all  professionals but pretty young,  alarmingly fit and vigorous and exuberantly expressive (a lot of  miming moments behind every development in the turbulent murderous court, and some ferocious fights).

         But whether alone or in choral speech they are spot-on: not a mic between them, every word audible and clear in the big auditorium, scenes well signposted as befits a family show.    Even when veering off the text to address the audience in asides it has control.    The witches  –  remarkable 20-foot puppets with terrifying heads of bird, turtle and ogre –  are deftly manoeuvred by three cast members each  as they grope at us with horrid limbs. And they  are for once given all Shakespeare’s lines.  Hubble bubble,  eye-of-newt, all that stuff which  the grand productions always swerve embarrassedly away from.    

           So when a sudden quietening takes us off the battlefield to the castle, Olu Adaeze as Lady Macbeth, reading the letter and resolving to kill,   has the responsibility of conveying  the first murderous chill, and  she does so with a dark queenly dignity, undisturbed by any larking around.   The midnight marital discussion  around the  bloody daggers is chilling too. And much later on  Matt Penson’s sober Macduff is similarly given the silence necessary for his appalled “What…all my pretty ones?   Did you say all?”. 

       We need that.     Alongside the hideous brilliance of the witches (even more so in their second-half in the dusk , conjuring spirits)  the show cheekily, without nervousness, keeps  that balance and blends a rampaging circus narrative with the tragic poetry.  Banquo,  Ailis Duff in half a naval uniform,  stands downstage in front of the castle’s  uproar to deliver the first  suspicion of his friend Macbeth  “I fear,thou play’dst most foully for’t”.  It is serious, even though it is followed by a ridiculous  murder-chase round the stage,  a freshly created song rhyming “I’m toast! I’m Banquo’s ghost!’, a twerk or two,   and  and a head popping up from a barbecue.    It works.    Later, doubling  as an exasperated wife of the absent, soldierly Macduff  she is is perfect: natural and domestic, so that her  (decently offstage) death is heart-catching.   Similarly Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene has a proper quietness:  Olu Adaeze in her nightgown shimmers helpless with guilt  in the gloom, under the great sighing trees.  

        Oh, and the porter.    Looking back at Red Rose Chain’s  rock ’n roll Romeo and Juliet I notice that I gave Darren Latham “my rarely given award for a not-annoying Mercutio”,  and this time he has the even harder task of making the damn porter bearable (OK, I know some people like it, but to me it always seems one of Shakespeare’s grimmer lollipop moments, and many directors cut it to almost nothing).   This time Latham goes the full red-nose comic,  complete with audience taunting and a song with the chorus “They don’t care!”  But  it’s all echoing the Porter’s original lines.  And the audience love it. 

        Love it too when, at the press night curtain-call,  Joanna Carrick summoned onstage for a final chorus  the community-group “Chainers”, some with disabilities,  and the new production manager Ryan .  Who got that challenging set together,  and who first worked with Carrick when he was inside HMP Warren Hill,  writing his own play about redemption which I wrote about in the Times a couple of years ago.   Theatre talks the talk about inclusivity and disadvantage, but few so cheerfully, walk the walk as Red Rose Chain, of Ipswich.    

box office   redrosechain.com  to 20 August.   Selling fast.

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