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Brighton Year-Round 2020

Low Down

Directed by Conor Baum with a crisply-observed 20 minute interval. Production Manager Nathan Potter. Production team Tabitha Fawcett Fry, Saskia Monteiro, Faith McNeill. Prop construction under Conor Baum Roseanna Bini and Katie Marshall. Next performance Saturday August 22nd at 18.00.


The One Fell Swoop Project’s Zoom Shakespeare last week zoomed out on to St Anne’s Wells Sensory Garden for the first time since its lockdown zoooms. In a word, Unlocked. Joanna Rosenfeld and Conor Baum alternate as directors and actors in a ‘micro-festival’, four outdoor productions of Shakespeare, the audience strictly distanced and with all amenities on hand.

Four plays are scheduled, now two but no-one knows which one it’ll be on the night, till the last. Much Ado About Nothing directed by Rosenfeld was the first. Now we’ve jumped to Macbeth directed by founder Baum. With Richard III and As You Like It jostling for next week, guessing odds are shorter

Actors have just 24 hours to con their parts meet up and read through, everything’s fluid, and the spirit of OFS with its spontaneous leaps into abysms of inspiration is preserved. The Zoom traversal of all Shakespeare and apochrypha will recommence in September.

Though modestly priced it’s also a charity event. There is though no gala about it. This is first-rate outdoor Shakespeare.

Macbeth is Shakespeare’s briefest tragedy, possibly trimmed by Middleton. Baum has understandably trimmed it still further, and one or two famous lines have had to go. This mostly works very well. The headlong tragedy of this sleeked-down play benefits from the production’s lean velocity and occasional fun. And as we’re warned the leading couple are married, wild passionate embraces are allowed in this distanced world. And Harold Bloom always maintained the Macbeths the happiest –w th each other – of all Shakespeare’s couples. We see it here.

Red-streamered scarves denoting blood explode with the ‘bloody man’ and hardly leave the stage. Like a leitmotif passed from victim to victim they trace the desperate career of a usurper ‘the man of blood’ plunging his country to civil war. Sam Cartwright’s wounded sergeant (he’s Angus and Second Murderer after) is one of those confident opening speeches that set the tone.

The dress-code is early 1920s, plus-fours and three sometimes ghoulish VADs rom WW1 or just after, who are also the Three Witches, banshees and agents of help. In a time of Covid one remembers the 1918-19 flu pandemic though that’s oblique to the postwar feel here. It’s not dissimilar to the RSC’s recent 1919-themed Much Ado, the Love’s Labour’s Won riposte gambit to a 1914-twinned Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Kirsty Geddes Lexit Pickett and Grace Leeder take on other roles (Messengers, Servant, Lord) but are sovereign here, wailing, playing the ominous oversized bodrum drums and uttering pronouncements coming together and separating in using the whole of the sensory Garden and its arcades.

Their way with Duncan Henderson’s Macbeth is stillness then brisk walks on and off, as though summoned to mischief in another ward. There’s much hanging of bloodstained cloth in trees, like bandages and their presence suggests everything might be a dream of a distorted future by a flu patient or more potently war-wounded observing the early 1920s through long convalescence. The use of Apparitions and drums, underscores this production’s use of as much magic in fading light as could be asked. Production values here are high.

‘Glamis though art’ as Rosenfeld’s slinky Lady Macbeth peruses that letter from Macbeth’s letter (her real husband Henderson) lends another wild surmise of 1920s dress. The vaulting ambition of the Glamis-castle-born Queen Mother who arguably did help push aside Edward VIII so her husband became George VI.

Rosenfeld’s powered way with black and white dresses to ‘hide the serpent under’t’ spans bonhomie to guests passionate then fierce entreaties to her husband full of envenom’d steel, and finally with a large bowl of water a riveting unhinging of conscience as she makes her shorn-to-shift final appearance.

Rosenfeld’s command of a rationale through commanding physicality is absolute, her interactions with Henderson fluid, intimate and as you’d expect wholly convincing. Apart from Nicholas Quirke’s 2015 BOAT Pericles this is the first time the couple have acted together. It’s been worth the wait.

Henderson’s rangy Macbeth is one of enormous clarity, frequently off the page as many are, and already exhibiting three traits. A bonhomie that darkens, a ferocious clarity and a air-drawn inwardness that makes his soliloquies disturbed with conscience and ultimately an exalted desolation.

Though set up in the final meeting with the Witches to look on Banquo’s progeny, the scene’s cut – the one which shows crucially his overthrow to Macbeth who’d still commanded his wife to ‘bring forth boy children only’. This might have been effected not through a dodgy procession of eight of the cast but more air-born visions with just the bloody Banquo pointing.

Ross Gurney Randall’s an assured Shakespearean and his Duncan’s more the affable warlord than the lean saintly aesthete he’s sometimes portrayed as. It’s more convincing for that, as Gurney Randall carves out the air with gravelly avuncular tones, before he’s carved. Here he’s a rock whose overthrow decentres Scotland. As Seyton he brings a touch of Enobarbus to his role as Macbeth’s ‘true, sick hearted slave’ (Housman) and a truculent First Murderer.

Sharon Drain who eventually spouts much in the wsy of red scarves as she sits accusingly at one of the banquet chairs makes a quizzical, querulous Banquo. Someone whose doubt in Macbeth grows visibly. The murder scene is particularly well executed as it were with the whole space being used as Fleance (Ben Baeza’s brief role before Malcom) escapes and Drain’s pummelled on the ground. Drain’s appearance as the Doctor, sometimes mutely waiting on Macbeth is involving with a ringing command of her own nightmare, as she interacts with Roseanna Bini’s Gentlewoman, whose performance here with Drain and Rosenfeld makes this a quiet high point.

Ben Baeza’s Malcolm is full of a sterling truculence. Accents in this play range from Scottish to north country, west and east, and Baeza’s command of a callow perhaps privileged youth turned king-in-waiting is a refreshing take on the barren boy (like young Octavian in Julius Caesar) whose chilly command of strategy fails in the begetting of heirs. His testing of Macduff is cut but the interaction between the two on Macduff’s news is powerful. He’s also one of the Apparitions.

Christine Kempell‘s Macduff is explosive. In terrific cut-through voice she embodies a politic war-machine full of foresight and flight but not enough to save his or her family )9ther’s some slippage in others referencing Macduff’s gender here; easiest to use original pronouns). Kempell has enormous energy, commands the stage and full measures up to mocking Henderson’s Macbeth. She’s also a menacing Second Murderer and Appirition.

Benjamin Darlington’s Porter is fine Scottish tour-de-farce, full of sly camp amusement and nailingly Funny. Darlington’s almost unrecognizable elsewhere as the sympathetic Ross, the kinsman to Macbeth and others and playful with Alissandra Henderson’s Macduff child, makes more of this warm and worried character than normal.

Pickett’s terrified Servant/Messenger brings Roseanna Bini’s Lady Macduff to a querulous pitch and defiance at the murderous cast dispatched as in the Banquo murder in black masks so even facing death the victim can’t look at their face. Alissandra Henderson’s active Son uses much of the apace, as does the whole murder scene. She plays Donalbain briefly separating from Baeza in a decorous panic after Duncan’s murder. Bini also plays an active Lennox

In the final scene full of bloodied heads but understandably no fight scene between Macbeth and Macduff but there’s a revelatory moment where Cartwright comes on as Young Siward only to be laid out. ‘You were born of a woman’ elicits laughter the way Henderson plays that comically, just at the point where it’s needed, as with the porter’s scene. It’s a revelation.

The preparation and care of props and placements here exceed last week’s, and indeed Production Manager Nathan Potter’s been clear in the direction of props, for instance an actor laying down that vital scarf in a pothole before the second half so Macduff’s Son can grasp it to be disembowelled. The only prop missing as the critic-on-holiday opined is ‘Lady Macbeth’s Hand Sanitizer’. Their one-liners are becoming a welcome feature of this mini-festival.

Baum’s direction allows reflective text room in its two hour twenty traversal with a crisply-observed 20-minute interval. Elsewhere there’s much dispatch and the effect of this play well-observed should always be relentless. That’s what it receives here. Like last week there’s clarity, truthfulness and trip-ups. A stylishly visceral production. Next week Rosenfeld again directs. Watch that grassy space