A Night in Macbeth’s Castle

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A Night in Macbeth’s Castle – Courtesy of RIFT/Felix Mortimer

LONDON, United Kingdom − I met Felix Mortimer during week two of rehearsals for Macbeth, the new production that his company – RIFT – is bringing to a secret location in East London from June to August 2014. It is lunchtime on a windy, changeable day in May, and the cast are enjoying their break in a haphazardly furnished room with a couple of large tables a somewhat rickety chairs. As we sit in a somewhat quiet corner in two beat-up armchairs, Felix muses about the rich theatre scene in London, remarking freely on how there is so much offer at the moment in terms of immersive, interactive or simply non-traditional theatre. Of course, much of it is really not very good (admittedly, he may have used a rather more colourful phrase). Aware of how this influences audiences, Felix knows that those who will go to see his company’s overnight version of Macbeth will likely come with a certain set of expectations about interacting with the actors, the environment about them and the drinks on offer! How, then, are they going to captivate an audience of 90 people each night and keep them interested, engaged, and thinking not just for the traditional duration of one of Shakespeare’s most iconic tragedies, but for a whole night and through breakfast the next morning?

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A Night in Macbeth’s Castle – Courtesy of RIFT/Felix Mortimer

Why did you decide to produce a new version of Macbeth, one of Shakespeare’s most well-known plays?

Shakespeare is universal. His work has been so infinitely interpreted – if you were do to a twentieth century play, people would question why you are doing it in a certain way, because those plays are more grounded in that time, there is a set interpretation to them. Shakespeare wrote about the dark and distant past, about contemporary stuff, not quite about the future ­– in The Tempest – but he had a big scope and that is what makes our play easier because there is so much to it, it can be any time. Ultimately, it is about a relationship: this dark marriage, and the horrible consequences of doing one evil thing that you then cannot ever escape. Our version is set in 1970s Eastern Europe, so there are lots of similar things going on in terms of politics as well.

The idea is also interesting in terms of the location and the architecture of the building we are taking it to. The last production we did here – The Trial – showed us a building so violent and brutal, Macbeth seemed like a perfect story. It is a play that has some very intimate personal scenes and some courtly scenes – in my mind, just putting Macbeth into this brutal context really worked. While the location remains secret, I can say that it all takes place in a building built in the 1950s as a utopian vision of a future in which everyone would live in tower blocs. Of course, it did not quite transpire like that and those buildings became a vision of dystopia instead – in this, I see a similarity to Macbeth himself: he wants to be king to make things better and he just ends up making things worse.

There is a lot of immersive theatre at the moment, and it can be hard to retain meaning when something is so trendy: how do you you’re your work meaningful?

If you look at theatre in general, there is so much rubbish and there is some good stuff – it is the same with this genre. There are a lot of people doing interesting things, who are taking it in lots of different directions – gaming, exploratory, installation. I think it gives you a bigger toolbox of things to play with and that is what is exciting for us. We still want to tell a story and that is the challenge for us – to tell a story while people are part of it. Audiences really, really love it – it is really exciting that theatre is becoming … exciting! For so long, it was boring and it is nice that younger people and people who would not usually go to the theatre can access this – that is what we are all about. We are taking this play, which people only read in school, and hopefully presenting it to them in a way that they never imagined it could be and enabling them to engage with it.

Does that make it difficult, trying to predict lots of different reactions from the audience?

Yes, that is a big challenge. There are really two ways to deal with it: the first one is to cater for every single different reaction – we tried to do that with The Trial, our previous production. Or you establish a set of rules, which mean that the audience cannot interact with what you are doing. This can be a shame for the audience because they want to explore, but it often enables you to do more – so it is a fine line between those two things and we try to let them experience a lot but at the same time keep it quite tight. The key is to keep it interesting.

How are you going to do that with an overnight production?

Good question! The audience basically have to go around a certain way, they are not free to move until the end of the play and only then they are free to explore. The exciting thing for us is that they go to sleep at 1am and that is when they think about the play (they are asleep in the play) giving them the chance to explore and we are curious about where that takes people. What will be really interesting as the performances go on is how we can manipulate the environment to create certain things in people’s dreams – the play itself is so much about sleep and dreams and sleeplessness, it feels like a nice way of getting into people’s minds.

Do you find that you try to tap into audiences that go to traditional theatre?

Yes – I like going to traditional theatre, there is a lot of artistry, and amazing performances by actors who can create empathy with the audience. I think that is often lacking with immersive theatre because everyone’s too taken up with the novelty. Combining those two to create both an exciting space for the audience but also characters who are really strong – whoever gets that right is going to be a genius! I think it is definitely possible: traditional theatre audiences want to see new interpretations of the plays they love and new theatre audiences want to see new ways to explore a story – so I think it balances out. Hopefully we can expose traditional audiences to new ways of thinking. And introduce new audiences to Shakespeare too.

Do you think that an immersive version of Shakespeare brings it closer to the way in which plays were performed in Elizabethan times?

I think in some way it will be. By having the audience standing up, and having food and drinks and sleep as part of the experience – I would not quite go to the Shakespearean lows of gambling and prostitution, but it will be interesting to see how audiences behave. In traditional theatre buildings, audiences are conditioned to behave in a certain way while they do not behave like that with something we are making – so the question becomes, why is that? Is not theatre about the way the audience will respond to it? There are people who are not here in the rehearsal process and that is the audience members who will come to see it – they are equal parts of the performance as the actors are and that is often forgotten in traditional theatre. Maybe in Shakespeare’s times, it was something they played on more, and the scenes are designed to incorporate that. That is why his works are so fast-paced and the language so rich and so full of innuendo and joke – it is so the audience do not mess around!

So what should people coming to see your Macbeth expect?

Each night, 90 people will experience the play with nearly 30 cast members: a good ratio of actors to audience, which is essential to create a world and make you feel like you are elsewhere, that you have lost contact with reality and are part of something else. At the moment, our interpretation is getting very, very dark – which is good. It suits the mood of the play. Hopefully, we will awaken people’s paranoia. We want you to feel like your are in an air shelter: there are bombs going off around you, yet you are safe in your cocoon – relatively…

Sounds like sleeping through the night in Macbeth’s tower bloc may prove difficult after all.

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A Night in Macbeth’s Castle – Courtesy of RIFT/Felix Mortimer

Courtesy of: Felix Mortimer| RIFT’s Macbeth is on from June to August 2014 in an undisclosed location in London | Website: macbeth.in
Emma De Angelis About the author

A historian by training and editor by profession, reviews the glittering lights of the West End, unsuspected ballet classes in shabby Whitechapel and edgy shows in disused railway tunnels. With a PhD from LSE, she lives and breathes the London stage.

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