When you sign up to see RIFT’s Macbeth, you receive an email telling you where to go and a few other useful pieces of advice: don’t forget your toothbrush being one. The company formerly known as Retz, formerly known as 19;29, is taking things a step further than the likes of Punchdrunk by giving audiences the opportunity to stay at the venue. Actually, it’s not just an opportunity but a requirement. The other thing the email tells you is that phones are banned so, if you bring yours, it will be confiscated on arrival.
Putting yourself in the hands of a theatre company for fourteen hours and remaining entirely off-grid in the process is as exciting as it is disconcerting. Obviously, Rift’s target audience are people who are going to find it more exciting than worrying though: an audience eager for an adventure, an experience. Personally, I felt it thrilling to leave my phone at home. It felt like a very short holiday.
Walking to the location from Langdon Park station is an unprepossessing experience at first until you see Balfron Tower looming overhead. Ernő Goldfinger’s Brutalist masterpiece from 1968 is an extraordinarily grand experiment in highrise living in Poplar. It features two towers linked by eight passageways, with the lift and utilities in the smaller tower while residents live in the main one. Part of a postwar movement to provide affordable housing, it combines a socialist project with a very particular individual vision of the man who inspired the iconic Bond villain. As a building it seems to embody boundless ambition, something which Felix Mortimer of RIFT (interviewed here) is frequently and justly praised for. And then there’s Macbeth who fears his own ambition but gives way to its pull with the encouragement of his Lady.
It feels like the perfect alignment of play, company and site but, just as you begin to take in your environment, you find yourself accosted by a performer doing a weird generic Eastern European/Central Asian accent. These appear to have been largely inspired by Sacha Baron Cohen’s character Borat. They are dressed in drab dark red and grey uniforms, some civilian and some military. We give our name and are handed travel visas to enter the land of Borduria. We can change our British money into the local currency. There’s an impressive amount of detail and, despite the weird accents, I feel willing to go along with this transposition of Shakespeare’s play to some kind of Soviet era dystopia.
Getting ushered into the building itself via a dark underground car park and there are three women with smudged faces are running around and grabbing at us. Suddenly a couple of soldiers turn up. It’s Macbeth and Banquo and they’re performing the Shakespearean text. As they weave among us, I start to wander who we are in this world and who Macbeth and Banquo are in relation to other unnamed characters I’ve met so far. Why don’t they have to do the silly accent?
As the play goes on, we’re taken up into a makeshift tavern where we see Duncan’s image on the wall like the glorious leader of any selfrespecting autocracy. From there on to the flat we’ll be staying where Lady Macbeth is asking us to “unsex her”, suggesting we might be spirits. I barely have time to consider the logistics of this request when Macbeth storms in to announce the King’s arrival. Considering we’re going to be in the building for so long, everything seems to be happening at breakneck speed. There’s something strange that happens when Shakespeare is performed in this kind of intimate domestic environment: everything suddenly appears hugely literal. There’s no way of representing the passage of time, for example, so characters run into another room and suddenly several hours have passed. After Duncan’s murder, chaos ensues and several characters break off to have private conversations. On a stage, we can suspend our disbelief when this happens but, as everyone bundles into a small apartment, you immediately start to wonder why they don’t go into another room to plot.
The urgency with which each section is played makes sense when you understand the format. Three casts are performing the text simultaneously every night and each of them is performing it several times in an evening. The audience experience therefore alternates between watching the text performed in this way and waiting for the next section. As the ushers don’t know exactly when the performers are going to return, you just have to wait there for the next bit to happen. At one point, the gap is filled by us watching a grainy TV screen, where we see some of the events in “England” unfold, as well as hearing reports of the Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane. As soon as we start to imagine Balfron Tower as literally representing Dunsinane though, a whole new set of issues emerge: there’s no Birnam Wood in Poplar or anything that might be used as an equivalent. The wood therefore becomes every bit as ethereal as Macbeth’s phantom dagger. There is however “real” fighting with “real” weapons and great effort has been made to give Macduff (the excellent John McLear) a head to brandish that resembles Humphrey Hardwicke’s Macbeth as closely as possible.
Considering all these difficulties, it didn’t come as much of a surprise that the best part of this Macbeth was the part that Shakespeare hasn’t written. We were all herded into a small bedroom and, after being terrified by the three witches for a few minutes, we’re divided up and taken into three different rooms where each witch talks to us about the blurred boundaries between her waking and dreaming life. In doing so, she reveals a trauma she has undergone. Thomas McMullan’s text has been crafted for the intimacy of this situation and the performer I saw (Roseanne Lynch) knew exactly how to provide space for interaction while remaining in control herself. Her performance has all the poise and precision that the rest of the production never achieves.
After the play is over, you can stay on to drink in the bar until 2 am before heading back to your flat to get some sleep. The next morning, you’re roughly awakened by the actors and brought up to the roof for Malcolm’s coronation. By this stage, you’re likely to be entirely focused on either the astonishing views across London and/or getting a cup of coffee. The fate of Scotland/Borduria/wherever we are is neither here nor there. You may also be wondering where your phone is.