I thought I’d seen everything in 40 years of theatre reviewing but Macbeth by the Guildford Shakespeare Company at Holy Trinity Church produced a first. Arriving for a weekday matinee, I was pleased to see a significant curriculum audience: youngsters relish blood and gore. But not so one of their teachers. Midway through the banquet scene, she fled the theatre in fright and didn’t return even after the interval.
Director Charlotte Conquest has created a site-specific version of the best kind in which it became unclear what was a prop and what was a permanent component of the church. Venue and the play’s environment had truly merged.
There is a radical decision to cast one of the company’s principal performers, Sarah Gobran, as Banquo and for her to play the role as a woman when her army uniform struck me as androgynous and she could easily have portrayed a man. There is something peculiarly masculine about the Macbeth-Banquo exchanges concerning who will rule and who will merely beget rulers, and the parade of kings had to be trimmed as a result.
As Macbeth, Jack Whitam realizes that the playwright has done most of the work for him; sit precisely on the meter of the verse and the audience will pick up every nuance of your state of mind. He is particularly adept with the confessional asides and soliloquies while immediately convincing as a career soldier.
Macbeth at Holy Trinity Church, Guildford. Photo credit: Matt Pereira.
Stella Taylor is an authentically psychopathic Lady Macbeth, truly a ‘fiend-like queen’ but with the charisma to evoke loyalty from her retinue as well as blind love from her husband whose: “She should have died hereafter” suggests that he now sees no meaning in life and craves a quick reunion with her.
Lucy Pearson is outstanding in multiple roles including a seductive first witch, Donalbain and Fleance. She switches characters and genders thanks to functional choices by costume supervisor Anett Black whose creations allow most of the cast to treble-up convincingly. I always expect first-rate verse speaking here but Annabelle Terry brings fluidity to her speeches as many characters, most notably Lennox.
Publicity blurb had suggested the piece would be set in the Balkans. I saw it rather as guerrilla warfare that had spilled over into a church, with Neil Irish’s two-tiered design using nave, altar, transepts and even pulpit.
At the macro level, the prospect of an unprincipled megalomaniac who is happy to dispose of those who have brought him to power makes us look at current leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. Shakespeare’s handling of equivocation in this play is an antecedent of the Orwellian ‘alternative facts’ used by Trump’s advisors.
Jack Whitam and Eric MacLennan. Photo credit: Marc Brenner.
Little was done with Burnham Wood advancing on Dunsinane and you would have expected more from such an inventive company. I made a deliberate choice to attend a matinee and imagine that lighting designer Mark Dymock’s effects in the evening, notably for the sleepwalking scene and with the church’s stained glass coming into play, would have been impressive.
And the detail that sent the drama teacher rushing out? With simple stagecraft, as Lady Macbeth lifts a soup tureen at the banquet we see Banquo’s head lolling on a platter with the actor crouching under the dais. It was pulled off exquisitely and proved truly stomach-churning.