The Walker Studio is completely transformed, as Shrewsbury’s Theatre Severn comes of age. Opened up as a huge black barn of a place, blood red rods of glass hang dangerously over a what initially appears to be a steaming bog, peopled with squelching actors. The shifting surface destabilises all and sundry. Which, of course, is precisely what the Macbeths are about to do … in this otherwise commensurately surefooted production.
The dark, gritty atmosphere is terrific. Played in a pit with the audience all around, the technicians are having a field day. The light is tight on individual characters and Sarah Weltman’s subtle, spare, surround-sound is chillingly eerie, as it creeps up behind the audience and rattles round the room.
But there is a firm hand of restraint; for director Loveday Ingram clearly wants there to be no distractions. So, the play itself is a traditional telling of the murderous tale, with teenagers very much in mind. The extreme intimacy allows the cast to address their speeches directly to individual pockets of the audience. This is ‘real’ nose-to-nose human theatre; with no whiff of CGI. Reassuringly, Shakespeare stilled four hundred thumbs.
Patrick Robinson’s Macbeth is bald, black and bearded in rough leather; a man undermined by his overambition. Jane Gurnett’s Lady Macbeth has the air of someone who is surrounded by fools and saddled with a hopeless husband. The chemistry between them is cagey; driven by status rather than sex. In a clever running gag, their plotting is constantly interrupted by passing servants. And so their frustrations rise.
Dave Fishley’s Banquo also shines. His reappearance as a ghost is so imaginatively done, I’m going to break all the rules and tell you about it. If you don’t want to know, skip to the next paragraph. He is slain at close quarter and left to rot in the bog. But then Macbeth’s servants place an opaque, coffin-like, glass case over him, in order to serve dinner. The guest gather round eating merrily from it, until light suddenly glows from inside, turning the glass transparent. And there is Banquo’s writhing, blooded body to terrorise the Thane. Pure magic.
The large cast, many with RSC credentials, is supported by community actors in challenging parts … to which they rise like potential pros. Oliver Tennant catches the eye – and the ear with his fine voice. Likewise, Bexie Archer (who I enjoyed as Titania in Ludlow last year) has perfect presence as one of the three witches, partnered by Shelley Smith and led by the experienced professional Sarah-Jane Potts. The weird sister scenes are excellent and their rapping of the Bard’s lines a nice nod to modernity. Ingram augments them by casting small children to deliver Macbeth’s prophecies; another clever (and disturbing) touch.
And sure enough, the omens all come true, thankfully without twigs, but with a gory death in a torrent of blood.
This is Theatre Severn’s first full, in-house production, and it’s a great success. Hopefully we can now look forward to more top-class productions that draw upon RSC talent. Tickets flew; so the demand is certainly there.