RBL Theatre overload our senses with a horror-filled, female-led, post-apocalyptic production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, on at Reading Minster until 9 November.
October 2019 is the one-year anniversary of Henry II, the final instalment of Reading Between the Lines’ Conquerors Trilogy, charting the medieval history of Reading. Since then, the local theatre company has developed a lot and in January 2020 they will change their name to Rabble Theatre.
According to company founders Toby and Dani Davies, the name change is due to confusion in pronunciation of the old brand and because they also wanted, “something punchy that sums up the response we want people to have to our work, that sees them leaving with their thoughts provoked”.
So, with the trilogy behind us and the change of name on the horizon, RBL are signalling an evolution, growing up, if you will. They’re moving on to telling not just ‘Reading stories’ but a wider range of innovative theatre for the people of Reading, still in unusual locations. Which fortunately brings us back to Reading Minster for this month’s performance of Macbeth.
From the off, expect a Shakespeare play with a difference, as here the character of Macbeth – power hungry, paranoid, a monarch killer – is a woman. And that’s just the start of the change in direction. Not one for traditionalists, this production is a completely original retelling of the classic tragedy. It resembles what I imagine a modern Netflix adaptation of Macbeth would look like.
We open in the round, thanks to creative use of the Minster space. It sets a stark, barren stage against the beautiful yet haunting backdrop of the high beamed ceiling and stained-glass windows. Clear plastic sheeting curtains are drawn back, lending a forensic, morgue-like feel to the stage. It’s the first hint of the show’s dark, horror movie approach.
While clever and creative, many of the changes differ from the traditional narrative causing the audience to really question what’s happening. Which can lead to confusion at first if, like me, you haven’t seen the ‘Scottish play’ for a few years. So, to catch you up on the plot, Scottish general and cousin to the queen, Macbeth receives a witchy prophecy that she will one day become queen of Scotland. This drives her on a path of greed and ambition to kill the queen (and others) and take the crown. The journey sees her torn with fear, paranoia, ghosts and guilt. It’s one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies, so – no spoilers – but things don’t end well.
Instead of the traditional enclosed woodland setting, this production transports us to a clinical, near-future world. A stripped-down cast hints at a band of freedom fighters, rather than a vast national army. Cohesive costuming enhances this post-apocalyptic vibe with a wardrobe of earthy-hued, largely gender neutral and period unspecific outfits. It made me think more of The Rebel Alliance than tribes of Scotland.
That futuristic gaze is heightened by the decision to present only one witch instead of the originally scripted ‘three weird sisters’. Our witch is a psychiatric nurse, but a twisted, terrifying one. Lizzie Crarer plays her with a steely Nurse Ratched sensibility and a chilling, almost android-like nature. It’s all offset by her truly terrifying physical creep through some of the tensest scenes.
While I know the decision to use only one witch frustrated some of the purists in the audience, it’s a smart choice. The witch as a singular being stands out as the only character in control of the situation. But this also adds to the creeping sense of paranoia and uncertainty, felt by both Macbeth and the audience. We’re not sure what’s happening, if this witch is a real being, a ghost, or a figment of Macbeth’s imagination.
This of course brings us to the female Macbeth. Jessica Baglow is impressive and layered in the conflicted lead role. She stresses the rising sense of paranoia, possibly even a breakdown that Macbeth is experiencing. What I have seen elsewhere as a portrayal of strength, power and masculinity becomes more clearly about fear and instability.
The gender-swapped main role leads to a Lord Macbeth. This too raises questions to the audience. A role that is traditionally considered scheming and manipulative here becomes frustrated and often vulnerable. Oliver Bennet is powerful in that role, showing anger and softness.
This means some of Shakespeare’s beloved dialogue is updated to fit the change in gender. This may have been contentious, but it certainly makes the audience question the plot. We’re left asking: how can a character who knows what it’s like to lose a child be so callous as to take another young life? That’s true whether Macbeth is male or female, but with a woman in the lead, the question dominates our reaction.
The entire cast do striking, impressive work, but particular mention must go to Charlotte Wyatt as Macduff, who makes her professional stage debut after years in youth theatre. She is blistering and heartbreaking, a fireball of rage on the news of the death of her family and clear-eyed in the need for revenge over Macbeth. Her final scene was the night’s most emotional, so much so that I actually felt my eyes water. It’s powerful stuff and all the more so for its stripped back nature.
Director Hal Chambers describes Macbeth as Shakespeare’s horror story and this production definitely takes that scary movie bent and runs with it. Throughout the play, Chambers does innovative, bewildering and ingenious things with fight scenes and death scenes, to match that chilly, horror flick approach. Those see-through plastic curtains give a nod to ‘Psycho’, for example. But occasionally those death scenes have the tendency to become too big and tip over into melodrama. These would benefit from scaling the terror and screeching back a few notches.
It would have been stronger to trust in the quality of the creative idea, the acting, soundscape and set design, which are all so immersive they convey the message without some of that thrashing around.
RBL always invest in original, world-building music, but here the soundscape is the production’s star-player. It’s full of eerie tones and warping screeches. It’s also loud, really loud. Enhanced by the echoey walls in the Minster, it becomes a fully immersive experience. Sound swirled around the audience like Macbeth’s growing fear. I not only heard the panic and terror, I felt it in my chest.
This all results in a disturbing production filled with terror, uncertainty and confusion. RBL’s Macbeth is original, thought-provoking, emotional and immersive. I left the Minster feeling emotionally drained and in a state of shell shock.
Much has been made in recent years (often by me) of Reading Between the Lines’ connection to the stories of Reading. As important as that was, it’s no longer the only story. RBL aren’t just ‘good for Reading’ or ‘Reading’s cultural leader’, they have evolved and are an excellent, innovative theatre company, doing high-quality, perception changing work. And they happen to be in Reading. We’re lucky to have them.
Join the rabble. Go be immersed. This version of Macbeth may confound what you know about the Shakespeare play, but you certainly won’t be able to forget it.