I once read advice that a unique tour of the landscape of London, both historic and contemporary, is available if you simply cast your eyes upwards out the window of a double decker bus. It was good advice. In amongst the hanging baskets of petunias is a whole other world of life conducted above ground level and you start to notice interesting features like the proliferation of imagery borrowed from Ancient Greece in the City of London.
However, sometimes it is just as insightful to look downwards. For those living in the north of the city, the gravitational pull exerted by Park Street leading down to the city centre and Waterfront often makes Bristol seem like a city suggesting a downward line of sight, but rarely does this extend to being pulled literally underground.
The Redcliffe caves are situated underneath Redcliffe hill. From the entrance, the gothic masterpiece of St Mary Redcliffe Church appears disconcertingly close, given that you would hope a building like that was placed on top of foundations a little less resembling the inside of a bath loafer. The caves, in fact, are the result of mining for sand that was then made into glass bottles for beer and rum. Rumours exist about their alternative usage for storing slaves either during the Napoleonic wars or the transatlantic slave trade, but are officially debunked. Either way, they remain equally beautiful and ominous. The red walls and pillars curve upwards in gnarled formations. On one section is a splattering of indentations that turn the wall into a giant angel wing, but every bit of prettiness finds its opposite in a dark corner or a sudden mean drop in celling height.
For a successive year, Insane Root have returned to this scarlet-tinted home to stage Macbeth. I make one aborted attempt to get there when it first opens. I get lost, soaked in a rainstorm, miss the start and trudge home to an evening spent listing, thematically, to Nick Cave. However, the second attempt on a Saturday lunchtime is more successful. I make it to the landmark of the Ostrich pub and after loitering awkwardly for a while wondering if I am condemned to never find these mythical caves, notice that a camouflaged red gate has gently titled open in the wall at the furthest end of the walkway.
Productions housed in particularly noteworthy surroundings borrow much – sometimes too much – from their location. They can sometimes be accused of relying too heavily on the scenery and not enough on aspects of the play itself. I confess, I thought this might be a bit gimmicky, a bit of a summer tourist trap activity. But I was proved to be a cynic. It was my second Macbeth of the week, having also seen Iqbal Khan’s version at the Globe, and this one was far more uncomplicatedly enjoyable.
Like Khan’s production there is a touch of the gothic about this one (it’s performed in caves, after all) but there is also something a little earthier. It’s set in a mead-swilling version of the British Isles where fashion statements come from draping an animal carcass across your shoulders. The performance begins as a promenade through the smaller compartments of the underground network. The witches’ voices bounce from wall to wall, ping-ponging about in disorientating harmony. The environment is at its more effective during the promenade moments, but it’s a Saturday and my bum aches from attempting to do Pilates to offset last night’s beer, so when the space opens out and we’re lead into a banquet room I gratefully take my place on the wooden bench provided.
Ben Crispin as Macbeth begins the performance swaddled in layers of wool and leather. By his dying moment he has become gradually more unrobed until he is suddenly small and half-clothed in Mr Darcy’s discarded white shirt. The longhaired Thane who stalked about like a Saxon warrior has been unveiled as a fraudulent and paranoid monarch.
Performed within the very foundations of a modern city, Insane Root’s Macbeth conforms to the pattern of all good productions of Shakespeare in making the play seem both relevant and really good fun.
Macbeth is being performed in Redcliffe Caves until 14th July 2016. Click here for more information.