Saturday 24th June, 2017 – Macbeth, Iris Theatre Company, St. Paul’s Church, Covent Garden
On Saturday afternoon we attended a performance by the Iris Theatre Company of Macbeth at St. Paul’s Church, Covent Garden, also known as The Actors’ Church. It is therefore fitting that it has a theatre company all its own, and it was this company that entertained us splendidly in and around the church.
The performance, by a company that aims to provide roles and development for young actors, has been designed in such a way as to take place in a number of settings, starting outside in the various parts of the gardens, and moving indoors for the banquet scene, and also for the closing scenes later in the play, a move that has the audience exit the church at the interval by going through the Macbeths’ bedroom, where they are both in the grip of their nightmares.
It got off to a slightly shaky start once we had all taken our places (or found places to stand) in the garden, largely due to the presence overhead of a police helicopter pretty much drowning out the words no matter how much effort the cast put in. This was – irony of ironies – needed because the police were keeping an eye on a far right demo by a bunch of neo-fascist thugs, who – in addition to all the other reasons for loathing them – now add drowning out the Bard to their many more or less revolting crimes. They presumably dispersed around 15 minutes later because the chopper then headed away from Covent Garden, and it became possible to hear the words, and for that matter undergo the necessary suspension of disbelief that is required when sitting in an English garden on a sunny afternoon to let the mind conjure up the blasted heath and so on.
The production promised connections to Hieronymus Bosch’s work, and the three witches certainly delivered, although one of them was on some sort of stilt-like devices that creaked alarmingly and had the audience wishing for an application of WD40.
That aside, the budget doesn’t run to flash costumes and in fact only runs to just 7 actors, so there is a great deal of doubling up, with only Macbeth himself, played by David Hywel Baynes, not playing more than one role – probably on the grounds that he was a bit busy with the title role! Especially impressive was the way Baynes foregrounded the psychological damage that the murders do to the king, with a very twitchy demeanour that developed as the plot unravelled, but it was a superb performance all round, and his chemistry with his wife was excellently done too.
He was more than matched by Lady Macbeth, Mogali Masuku, in what would appear to be only her second stage production. She was stunning, perfectly judging the scenes both where Lady Macbeth incites her husband to basically take the short cut to the throne he’s been promised by the witches, but also in the “Out damned spot!” section. Oh, and she also doubled up as the third Witch, and as Macduff’s son. There was a brief moment or two in the first half where she slightly fluffed her lines, but she recovered, and it was a preview performance (press night is on Tuesday 27th June), so I don’t think anyone really noticed.
It was high energy stuff, and the two main characters were more than ably supported by the other five actors. Of them, the one with it’s fair to say a great deal more experience was Matt Stubbs, who made a robust, very macho, Macduff and also played the murderer of Banquo, which not only meant a costume change, but a thick coating of dirt, which presumably had to be washed off in the interval so he could re-emerge as Macduff once again. I especially enjoyed the scene where he finds out his family have all been murdered by Macbeth, and he struggles to express his grief. Bravo for that!
With only two women in the cast gender-blind casting wasn’t so much a choice as a necessity, which made for a very interesting choice for Malcolm, who was played by the remarkable Jenny Horsthuis, another newcomer with very little stage or screen work, here made out to be beautifully androgynous in the main of her parts, with a strong stage presence and an equally strong speaking voice. She was another who needed to perform some extremely quick changes to be able to also play Lady Macduff and the second witch. Luckily for all concerned the costumes are relatively simple and also look as if they are mainly easy to drag on and off, with the possible exception of the aforementioned squeaky stilts!
The absolute master of the quick changes seemed to be Stephan Boyce who started as Duncan and then seemed to crop up in every role that had not already been filled, including Seyton. Again a solid performance, particularly as Duncan, although he must have been roasting alive in his royal cloak during the early stages. The trouble with Duncan is that he doesn’t get to do a vast amount, apart from proclaim nobly before he’s bumped off by the Macbeths, which means any actor in the role is always going to play second fiddle to Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as they get all the meaty lines.
Playing Banquo, including some effectively ghoulish business as his ghost, was another Iris Theatre regular, Nick Howard-Brown. The performance was again an excellent foil to Macbeth, and a very physical piece of work, and again another actor who it was a pleasure to listen to. Ever since an abysmal Hamlet at our local theatre, where everyone apart from the main character seemed perfectly able to speak the words clearly, leaving me with a deep desire to dash out in the interval and make a banner reading “ENUNCIATE, DAMN YOU”, I’ve been a bit twitchy about my Shakespeare. No worries here, or in fact with any of the actors.
Playing Ross, and the last of the witches, was Linford Johnson, another of the younger members of the cast, though with a handful of years of experience behind him. There was humour to his performance, as well as presence and again the lines were delivered with panache, despite him probably having less to do than he might have liked.
If I had reservations about the show, one was that the effects were probably not to be seen at their best in daylight. I would imagine the strange and spooky cauldron and associated speaking rock will work much better at night under lights than it did in bright sunshine. I suspect also the murder of Macduff’s baby son would look more effective too, eliciting as it did the odd giggle from some of the younger audience members as one of the actor viciously set about dismembering what was obviously a plastic doll, but I really didn’t care. The cast seemed to be having a blast and I know we were too.
Ticket prices are stupidly low for London, and although you obviously take a chance with the weather, I would highly recommend it for any Shakespeare fans. Besides who wouldn’t want the opportunity to be exhorted to charge into battle as part of the ruse needed to get the audience moved from the garden back into the church for the final scenes? For that matter there is something thrillingly visceral and terrifyingly intimate about finding yourself scant inches from the performers as they weave their tale or murder and mayhem.