Location, location, location: Kirsten Kearney toils in Crumlin Road Gaol

Hats, gloves, scarves and hot cups of tea at the ready, the air of expectation amongst the audience gathered outside the Victorian Gaol late on Saturday night was palpable. As was the silence as the audience were contained within the airlock between the gates waiting for the play to begin.

After five years in the planning, Replay Theatre and the Old Museum Arts Centre were justly proud to have pulled off the coup of hosting Macbeth in the Crumlin Road Gaol and have made much of the ‘haunting backdrop’ and the ‘memorable venue’.

Haunting it is. With the voices of the witches spiralling out of the dark and bloodied messengers from war emerging out of the smoke, the play begins with much atmosphere and promise. The visual kick of the exercise yard, rubbled and backed by the long stretch of A-wing, gives the weird sisters a canvas on which their famous lines stand out starkly. Hospital-gowned and bloodied, the witches are Bedlam residents, tortured half-souls, speaking with the clarity of the unhinged. The shadows, and the inadvertent fireworks over the city herald the arrival of Macbeth and Banquo, black-kilted and leather-clad.

A nod towards Scotland and towards a context. One of the few. Despite the atmospheric beginning, where the play threatens to come apart lies in the lack of fit between story, context and setting. We are promised that: ‘It is fitting that this historic landmark should stage the haunting story of Shakespeare’s Macbeth’, yet the actual uniqueness of the gaol setting and the promised ‘fit’ never gathers momentum.

For me the question that this production of Macbeth does not answer is why is it set in a gaol? Richard Croxford claims ‘the Crumlin Road Gaol provides the perfect backdrop to enhance the themes of Macbeth’: power, ambition and murder. This is true if what is being presented is only a rehearsed reading of the play. But none of these themes are taken up within this production with reference to a gaol setting.

The gaol is where the play is performed. But this production is not set in a gaol. The director and the designer both need to be clear about where they are setting the play and more importantly why they are setting it in this context.

For me this production fails to answer this question. As a result, the performances suffer. The actors are unsure of who they are, where they are and why they are performing these lines in this setting. If they cannot make sense of it then they will, and did, experience much difficulty in communicating this to an audience.

It is an experience. We have come with expectation. It is night, moonlight even, it is Shakespeare under an open sky. But it is also unconvincing. The wrangling power struggle present in the Macbeth/Lady Macbeth relationship, the manipulation, the gradual disintegration of morality and the self are all conspicuous by their absence.

Despite the admirable pedigree of the actors, this production smacks of Shakespeare as many think Shakespeare should be performed. It is dramatic, declamatory, expressive, overblown. It is Peter Brook’s ‘deadly theatre’ in a fantastic setting. The direction of the main actors is largely to blame. Soliloquies are played directly to the audience, lines are hurried and mumbled, and characters emerge as stereotypes and clichés of the complex human beings Shakespeare has created.

Lines are wasted, thrown away and declaimed in artificially-anglicised accents, which, amongst the NI members of the cast, weaken and cheapen the characters. It is a welcome relief when the porter injects some Belfast humour, or when Fra Gunn’s characters speak with real vigour and believability.

Moments stand out when the play teetered on the edge of another dimension and came closer to fulfilling the potential inherent in the cast: Macbeth leaping onto the banqueting table, sending bread and wine scattering, Lady Macbeth’s silent exit from the same scene, the witches’ apparitions in Act IV, the murder of Lady Macduff and Macduff’s subsequent tortured silence upon hearing of her death, to name the most clear examples.

The witches, Fra Gunn and Niki Doherty, inject passion into their performances that is otherwise sadly lacking in this production. Misguided and misdirected by turns, this is a classic play with a large budget, that has sold out and will no doubt impress many by dint of its setting and the familiar lines.

However, it proves ultimately that location can only carry a production so far. The space is, without equivocation, fantastic and fantastical. Requiring little set, the corridors, wings, spiral staircases and levels of the gaol create their own magic and are meaningfully lit to optimise the atmosphere. Yet, the production cannot rest on location alone. It promised more and could have delivered much more.

To echo Richard Croxford’s words, in this year of celebrating 20 years of Replay’s existence, ‘Much has been achieved’ yet ‘much remains to be achieved.’ Think of it as a moveable rehearsed reading of Macbeth against the backdrop of an empty Victorian jail and wrap up warm.