“O nation miserable, with an untitled tyrant bloody-scepter’d, when shalt thou see thy wholesome days again?” The Scottish Play continues to prove a relevant text, as Britain finds itself a new unelected leader, seemingly intent on removing democracy and setting the country on a path to modern-day Horrors. This time round it’s Antic Disposition taking on Macbeth, now resident at the historic Temple Church following their usual summer sojourn in France.
This production’s Victorian setting is immediately intriguing. It’s an unusual period in which to set the play – popular recent choices have been either traditional or contemporary/dystopian – but one which casts a whole new light on the story’s potential. Polly Findlay’s 2018 production for the RSC played up the horror element in a modern-day context, and Ben Horslen & John Riseboro’s links into this idea in their own way by going back to the original ghost story practitioners; the combination of the historic building and the quick darkening outside enhances this idea and makes it into something truly special.
Probably my favourite aspect of the production is how the witches are brought into play – by being a constant, legitimate presence they are somehow simultaneously spooky and very natural. As servants they can be around to overhear key information without being noticed, and may also have reasons to bear a grudge – plus being women doesn’t exactly help them in that period of history. All of these things combine to explain how & why they’d help set this bloody course of events into action. Louise Templeton, Bryony Tebbutt and Robyn Holdaway are suitably creepy in the roles, creating a strong & powerful presence as a triumvirate.
Time is another key element in this play, everything spiralling out of control at an eventually frantic pace – the theatrical form of the domino effect. Antic Disposition’s production is slick and well-paced, scenes dramatically punctuated with original compositions from James Burrows. The decision to place the interval just after Banquo’s murder may be partly for practical reasons, but this represents a major tipping point in Macbeth’s story – and it’s fascinating to see how quickly the rest plays out after the break.
Andrew Hislop’s Macduff isn’t the typical brute that is a popular choice for this character, instead he brings out Macduff’s more human side; he’s clearly principled, opting to join Malcolm against Macbeth’s tyranny, but also very much a family man. The quiet grief with which he initially greets the news of his wife & children’s untimely deaths is incredibly moving, though it quickly triggers an understandable rage.
Harry Anton is a little inscrutable at times, and maybe lacks a little conviction as the eponymous king – he is at his best when Macbeth is in full villain mode, brooding over what his next step must be. As the other half of the murderous couple, Helen Millar is absolutely magnificent. Her Lady Macbeth begins in full control, clearly focused on the task ahead and the reward it will bring – but then you see her slowly dawning horror at what has to be done in order to retain their position, bleeding into definite guilt and even some remorse. A towering performance.
My verdict? An intriguing retelling of the Scottish Play as a Victorian ghost story, with ingenious use of the witches & historic surroundings – Helen Millar is a magnificent Lady Macbeth.
Macbeth runs at Temple Church until 7 September 2019. Tickets are available online or on the door.