What makes a Shakespeare play? Each truly memorable production brings together the genius of the Bard’s poetry with the stagecraft of a committed troupe of actors. These two elements form the lodestars of Ben Crystal’s ensemble, Passion in Practice, which last weekend brought a raw and instinctual staging of Macbeth to the back streets of Southwark.
Crystal is both a Shakespeare puritan and iconoclast- inverting preconceived ideas of how his plays should be read, performed, and understood by reviving the original techniques and methods used by the playwright’s contemporaries. Stripping away the seeming essentials of modern performances- such as costumes, lighting, and even rehearsal time for the actors- Passion in Practice compels their audience to dwell on the naked brilliance of Shakespeare’s meter and language.
Their Macbeth was both a tribute to the genius of the playwright’s poetry and a daring theatrical experiment. The ensemble sought to immerse the audience in an Elizabethan rehearsal process by performing their scenes together unpractised, relying on their own and each other’s instincts as well as the subtle cues embedded in Shakespeare’s text to bind the production together.
This form of working would have been standard practice for acting troupes in the Bard’s day. Each performer would have played several parts in several different productions concurrently, switching from character to character on a daily basis, rather than committing to a single role for months on end like today’s professionals. With rehearsal time at a premium, actors had to learn their lines fast and perform with minimal direction, hence the reliance on the text itself to steer each role and define each scene.
Passion in Practice allowed nothing to detract from this experience, choosing a sparse, split-level loft space in Tanner Street as a set, candles for lighting, and the bare minimum of props- a dagger, a crown, and a sword- to realise the drama. It was as far removed from the effects-heavy Omnibus production I saw last week as Great Birnam wood is from high Dunsinane hill.
Furthermore, the troupe spoke their lines in original pronunciation (OP), the English used by Shakespeare and his first audiences four hundred years ago. This opened up the play in new ways, unveiling rhymes ‘hidden’ by today’s pronunciation and lending new music to the verse lost to modern ears. The whole experience was underpinned by a two-piece scratch orchestra, which live-scored the action using traditional Elizabethan instruments.
The result was a rough-hewn production, startlingly beautiful in its simplicity. Here the text itself acted as director, the rhythm of each section of verse dictating the pace and mood of the actors’ performances. The jagged tetrameter underpinning the witches’ dialogue imparted their scenes with an uncomfortable staccato edge, clashing with the regal iambic pentameter that flowed from the tongues of King Duncan and the court. Crystal himself- as Macbeth- ably conveyed how the stresses and pauses in each line sculpt the character’s mindscape, determining when the bloody king’s thoughts are in order, and when they are flying into chaos.
Apart from an intimacy with the text, the actors also demonstrated an arresting sensitivity to each other’s performances. All productions rely on the shared energy generated by a skilled ensemble working in unison. However, contemporary performances smooth away the spontaneous interactions between actors through hours of careful rehearsal. While polish and consistency are gained, the primitive dynamism of those early rehearsal sessions is sacrificed.
Not so with this production. With the only things helping the actors pick up their cues being the meter and the reactions of their fellows, there was a vibrancy to their interactions I had not seen in any other ensemble. This was particularly true of the witches, whose banter came alive thanks to the shared intuition of the three performers.
The improvised nature of the production suited a play that rushes from supernatural opening to bloody conclusion with relentless momentum. Macbeth and Lady’s conspiracy is in their control only briefly before spiralling into disorder, and their growing panic is given fresh urgency by the actors themselves, who are similarly trying to prevent their makeshift performances from dissolving into incoherence. Though lines overlapped and the cast sometimes struggled to negotiate the split-level stage, what is remarkable is that the action never came to a fatal stop.
And this, more than anything, is testament to the quality of the ensemble and their extraordinary affinity with the text. Here were actors so absorbed in their roles that they’d cast off all trappings of modern stagecraft and transported the audience with them through a true Elizabethan playhouse experience. Shakespeare would be proud.