Macbeth

Macbeth

University of Northampton BA Hons Degree 2nd Year Actors

Let me start by saying I am writing this review some eleven hours after seeing this production and I am still coming to terms with what I witnessed. I thought I had it summed up last night but this morning it means even more.

This was Mikhail Baryshnikov and Bruce Lee do Shakespeare. I have never seen such a physical production outside of a Cirque De Soleil show in Las Vegas!

Anyone who has read my reviews knows how much I love actors being on stage when I come in to take my seat. This time I was treated to a frozen tableau that filled the stage and pulsed with the excitement that we knew would surely follow. We were not disappointed as a wild and untamed battle took place before our very eyes. With swords replaced with staffs it was choreographed to perfection. Just as well as it was just inches from my face in the front row. The action froze with bodies caught in mid-flight then erupted once again into mayhem and violence. This was the first time I set eyes on Ben Stacy who picked up his foe and simply broke his back across his knee then hauled him off set like a haunch of venison. What a truly spectacular opening to what was to become an amazing show.

We were soon visited by the three witches who were as dark and twisted as they could be. Their voices when in isolation and in chorus were screeching, hissing projections of their inner evil and mischief. Wonderfully played by Julia-Louise Nolan, Rachel Sherbourne and Kate Fenwick, they intertwined with our hero throughout the play. Truly three weird sisters!

I cannot write another word without mentioning Sam Billy Behan whose portrayal as Macbeth was a true tour de force. Before seeing this production I had never seen Sam before but from his entrance on stage I could not take my eyes off him. Stage presence cannot be taught in my humble opinion but this young man has it in spades! Seeing the happy almost carefree Macbeth when he first appears turn into the maniacal murdering and deeply haunted man was portrayed in the most physical way. As his descent into evil and madness begins and grows Sam’s own physical shape changes dramatically. When in public and in good spirit, he stands tall, his smile fractures his face and all is well with the world but in his private moments, like the worms that are eating his very soul, he twists and deforms into a misshapen caricature of himself. How Sam can maintain this through a single performance is beyond me, but to do two shows back to back is the sign of a truly great actor. Sam, you are a star. Simple as that!

Macbeth’s great friend and ally Banquo was played by Matt Hirst. Matt’s portrayal was first class. A fierce friend, he is strong and loyal but with a playful sense about him.  Matt has a strong physicality and can move like a cat that belies his stature. This makes him seem even more dangerous to deal with. As his own ghost he excelled in silent spectral splendour.

Lady Macbeth is as mad as a box of frogs and the marvellous Zoe Davey gave her all to the part. Malevolent and scared in almost equal measure she made it hard to take your eyes off her when on stage. Her interaction with her now demented husband as he stands over her screaming “O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!” while lowering her to the ground, his face in her face was outstanding. It truly showed how as actors, you have to accept that your personal space that you value in normal everyday life needs to be violated when on stage when emotions run riot seconds before they give way to violence. Spectacular pairing of players!

A moment wonderfully written by Shakespeare and portrayed by Hannah Mitchell and Jack Smith as the porters bought a light hearted interlude to life. The entire audience was laughing as they traded barbs and I am sure I counted at least five times when Hannah actually hit Jack each time with a resounding slap! Thank you both for giving us so much fun for those few minutes.

To see a giant of a man bought to tears is one of the most awful things to witness. Ben Stacey as Macduff was a dream. Seeing him on his knees sobbing for his beloved wife and child recently slaughtered could not help but move me. Then to see him rise up, stand tall and turn his sorrow into anger and rage against Macbeth sent shivers through my spine. His final one on one fight with Macbeth was brutal in its intensity and the way once slain, Macbeth was simply lifted like a sack and hauled off stage seemed so effortless.

Catherine Garlick, eventually crowned as Malcolm King of Scotland at the end of the piece was formidable in her role. Being of slight build and playing a man who was to be King, she never struggled to be forceful in her part. From entreating Macduff to stand and fight, to her final crowning speech, she was great to watch.

The choreography of the entire play was beyond belief and I found it thrilling to watch and for me it only added to the beauty of The Bards words.

I was recently with Dr Ross Prior at the 3rd year actor’s showcase. He described the university conservatoire way of teaching. With combat skills and ballet classes mentioned, I never thought I would see them so perfectly combined on stage.

I know I have picked out just a few names for mention but this is only because of space and memory. Each and every player in this epic performance should hold his or her head up high as they were all amazing. So many of them played multiple parts and how they remembered their fight moves, their nuances and their intensity is truly admirable.

 

Trudy A Bell, you are a gifted director and it is obvious, like a true leader your “troops” would follow you to hell and back. I have no doubt that when presented with this version of the Scottish Play, they had to suspend disbelief and trust you to show them just what they could do. Well they did it and I know how proud you are of each of them.

Steve Banks, Nancy Bean, Sam Billy Behan, Leanne Dallman, Zoe Davey, Chloe Emery, Dale Endacott, Kate Fenwick, Catherine Garlick, Matt Hirst, Sarah Kirk, Ryan McGown, Hannah Mitchell, Julie-Louise Nolan, Sophie Poyntz-Lloyd, Rachel Sherbourne, Sam Skinner, Jack Smith, Ben Stacey and Riley Stephen step forward and take a bow. There was a standing ovation for you last night. It was for each and every one of you and so very much deserved.

Thank you for such a wild ride last night. This is how Shakespeare should be: alive, exciting and innovative. I loved it!

 

As an aside, I recently had the pleasure of seeing the Kenneth Branagh National Theatre production of Macbeth. I paid to see it twice. If last night’s performance had not been the last, I would be back at the box office begging for another ticket!

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Richard III

Richard III

University of Northampton BA Hons Degree 2nd Year Actors

 

Staged in the wonderful Holy Sepulchre Church we were met with a very minimal set of a table and a single chair. Then the action started with a great use of music and light. I loved the slow motion and freeze frame action, all so difficult to carry off without looking ridiculous.

“Now is the winter of our discontent” was delivered by a cruel venomous mouth. With a sneer that continued throughout the performance, John Shelley addressed the audience and bought to life the soon to be King Richard III. With his total immersion in the part, I was worried that by the end Mr Shelley would disappear and only the image of the maniacal murdering King would remain. Outstanding work!

When Shakespeare writes, he writes many minor roles but he never wrote them for minor players. That holds true in the excellent casting in this production. If your name does not appear here specifically, be sure your performance was noted and admired by all.

A few special mentions are in order, not only for the size of their role, but for the execution of that role.

Jessica Kay as Queen Elizabeth, Lydia Rose Blagg as The Duchess of York and Jennifer Styles-Barker as young Elizabeth. They ran the full gamut of every emotion but the suffering, sometimes voiced, often silent, was an education to watch and listen to. How Jessica can go from proud and haughty to suppressed and downtrodden by removing her shoes and a slight loosening of her hair is magic.

I have seen Jamie Dawson-Parks in supporting roles as a heavy for the last two years, but his speech as King Edward was a real eye-opener. His delivery, his anger and his power fair shook me in my chair.

Melissa Michelle Madden as Queen Margaret in her opening speech rocked the very walls of the church with her loud, eloquent invective.

Despite being murderers, Oliver Mort and Ashlee Thomas Sopher bought some welcome levity and humour to the piece. I am not sure Shakespeare wrote them as a couple of wide boys, but he sure as hell would have approved of the two of them.

My final named mention is for Joseph Clift as Richmond. What a way to finish a play! His passion hammered out in the final scenes and I would have been very proud to have a King like that to rule over me.

Some other details worthy of note. A beautifully simple set. Each and every set change choreographed to the inch. Extremely difficult in such a tight and intimate space. There were so many legs and feet sticking out to trip over but each change was seamless.

Having seen many productions at The Holy Sepulchre I was delighted to see that the “Off Stage” area was not curtained off. We were allowed to see, the silent professionalism that simply occurs back stage without it ever being distracting.  

Before the battle itself, I really enjoyed the on/off stage manoeuvres as each faction passed each other as if they were invisible.

The music was very well used and timed. For a moment I feared the battle scene would be overshadowed by the loud music, but Northampton Uni Actors, being what they are were having none of it. With the aggression of the battle, they projected their voices magnificently and not a word was missed.

It was perfectly delightful to hear Shakespeare’s words delivered in all sorts of rich and natural accents. Not a single plum in any mouth.

Natalie Diddams as ever is a great director and I salute her tireless work with young actors groups.

Finally a thank you to you all. Stephanie Ashwell, Samantha Ahweyevu, Lydia Rose Blagg, Matthew Clark, Joseph Clift, Jamie Dawson-Parks, Rochelle Halsall, Jessica Kay, Tara Lawrence, Melissa Michelle Madden, Oliver Mort, Nikki Murray, John Shelley, Ashlee Thomas Sopher, Jennifer Styles-Barker, David Swan-Brown, Joshua Thomas, Antonia Underwood, Michael Whelbourne and Abbie White.

Tale a bow! You exceeded my expectations; you entertained me, moved me and made me love the theatre even more than before.

Only second year students? Year three will be a blast!

 

Thank you.

Jim

 

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Looking Glass Theatre.

Killed

17th July 1916

 

At Northampton’s own Looking Glass Theatre I was witness to a very powerful and thoughtful presentation of “Killed”. Originally produced by the Belgrade Theatre Company of Coventry, this story tells the story of a young World War One infantry man accused of cowardice in the face of the enemy.

We, the audience see the attack, the young men going up over the edge of their rat infested, mud filled trench to face the enemy with just a Lee Enfield 0.303 rifle and 14” of steel bayonet between them and the enemy, his machine gun emplacements and his artillery barrage.

Our hero, and I used the word advisedly because no man who volunteered to fight for his country can be called anything else, is Billy Dean (Jaz Cox). With the deafening noise of gun fire, thick smoke and tangles of barbed wire to deal with becomes disorientated and ends up back in his own lines.

Dean is arrested and faces a Court Marshall where he is accused of cowardice.

Jaz Cox who plays Billy Dean is on stage more than 90% of the time is quite remarkable. We see him go from a young man with a beautiful young wife May played by Sasha Farmer who together, watch the first volunteers marching proudly through town. Throughout the play we see him slowly disintegrate until finally shot at dawn by his own friends and comrades. Jaz can show emotion and keep that emotion running high throughout. In his scenes where he is waiting for the fateful morning to come he sobs softly in his cell, all the while struggling to put words on paper to his darling May that adequately tell her how here hero has now fallen.

The play switches back and forth between the battlefield in France to the ammunition works somewhere in northern England where May and her friend Elsie (Jennifer Styles-Barker) work. The interplay between these two strong women is at times fun to watch yet other times strained as their circumstances change. Both are deeply powerful performances throughout.

David Heathcote, familiar to all Looking Glass Theatre goers is the great bull chested regular army Regimental Sergeant Major. With his booming voice, he thrills the new recruits with his zeal and passion. I have seen David in many roles but this was his most interesting character portrayal by far. Perfectly cast he cajoles befriends leads and finally executes his recruits with the ease of a man who only knows how to follow rules no matter how objectionable they may be.

Our final member of the cast is Tim Cole who plays Private Walsh, Tommy and Captain Howard. Tim is excellent in all three roles. As Tommy, he is Billy Dean’s mate who tries to teach him French; a hilarious scene I must say. As Captain Howard, he is the inquisitor who grills Billy Dean on what happened on that fateful day. His look of sheer incredulity when Billy admits to swerving away from a German machine gun emplacement really shows how so many troops were through of as cannon fodder by officers who had no experience but were officers only by accident of birth. As Private Walsh, he is ordered to be part of the firing squad, to shoot a mate, to shoot a man whose family he knows.

All is all this is a remarkable piece of theatre. In a small area with a very simple but effective set designed by Paul Beasley, the story is told, the deed is done but the audience are truly asked to decide for themselves if Billy Dean is guilty as charged or just a scared lost soldier who still wants to do his best for his country.

My hat is off to the entire cast and crew and the director James Smith for creating such a thought provoking, emotionally charged and outstanding piece of theatre. I wish them luck and I truly believe this show should be performed to church halls and schools throughout the land as both theatre and education combined. Is there any better combination?

Note: In World War One, 306 British Soldiers were shot for cowardice.

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