“Blood will have blood.” When you’re performing in a restored Victorian theatre, the temptation to bring a bit of a gothic flavour to a production of The Scottish Play is understandable. The Shakespeare Project‘s inaugural production is currently in the middle of its run – they are performing Macbeth at the historic Salomons Estate near Tunbridge Wells in Kent for a limited engagement.
Queen Duncan takes charge here, waiting impatiently for news from the battle and later heaping honours on her son Malcolm & kinsman Macbeth, before heading to the latter’s castle – and her bloody death. This all comes about thanks to Macbeth & Banquo’s chance encounter with the Weird Sisters, wherein they prophesy greatness for both men; Lady Macbeth in particular can’t wait to see if it will come true of its own volition, and so persuades her husband to take his destiny into his own hands – little realising the widespread ramifications of this decision. The bloodshed can’t be confined to the old queen, Macbeth seeking to overthrow the prophecy to keep his grasp on power as his wife loses her grasp on sanity, both eventually succumbing to tragic ends.
It’s an interesting idea to make the incumbent Scottish monarch a queen rather than a king; Louise Jameson cuts a compassionate figure in the role, also showing a touch more intuition than male versions I’ve seen in previous productions – she’s not as convinced of Lady Macbeth’s loyalty, though she obviously doesn’t escape her fate. The idea could have been explored a bit further and become a bit more prominent in the story – perhaps by having a daughter who she could make the heir, which would wind up Macbeth even more about being overlooked for the position of Prince of Cumberland, or maybe a female Macduff as a natural ally.
The theatre houses a fine organ, which is put to good use at certain points in the play, and also ties in well with the aesthetics of the Weird Sisters. Clad in the white garb of holy women, they are a ghostly presence but draw no suspicion from the people around them (to the cost of one poor injured soldier early on). The slightly spooky atmosphere created by these different elements really adds to the production, especially as the nights draw in and it starts to get dark & stormy outside too.
What I also appreciate is that The Shakespeare Project has addressed the Fléance plot hole, creepily returning him to the fray alongside the Weird Sisters to suggest that Banquo’s side of the prophecy could still come true. This is very often overlooked in productions of Macbeth (as it does seem as if Shakespeare himself forgot Banquo’s son when he finished writing the play), so it’s incredibly satisfying when a company picks up on it – Polly Findlay’s 2018 production for the RSC is the only other time that I recall it being considered, also to great effect.
Joseph Pitcher’s innovative direction sees the cast making excellent use of the whole theatre: entering & exiting through the auditorium (using multiple doors), heading up to the balcony, and engaging with the audience where appropriate. Adam Sopp uses this licence in the role of the Porter, stirring the audience from the horror & seriousness of previous scenes by finding farmers and equivocators in their midst, bringing some much-needed levity with the character’s black humour.
There is no one definitive way to approach the title character – in this production, Peter Basham makes him come across as quite nervy and a little introverted to begin with, though as he gets sucked further into wickedness he does start to become more sure of himself. The change in Basham’s Macbeth is most marked when you consider his interactions with other characters; whilst he and Macduff clearly have a history (as the latter, Aaron Sidwell is immediately antagonistic in both physicality and delivery), Macbeth and his wife have a close relationship to begin with but it gradually cools off as they realise their ambitions – you can see the balance of power shift between them, Ffion Jolly’s Lady Macbeth attempting to maintain her husband’s attention until the stress combines with burgeoning guilt and she has a nervous breakdown.
If you’re heading there from out of town and are relying on public transport it’s a little more effort than you might think, but it is well worth it. The concept is very well thought through, and the tone is set early on thanks to a good combination of design, music and excellent acting performances.
My verdict? A spookily good version of The Scottish Play, the words and surroundings combining to great effect – top quality Shakespearean produce from The Garden of England.
The Shakespeare Project’s Macbeth runs at Salomons Estate until 24 November 2019. Tickets are available online.