On the Rocks: Macbeth in the Castle

Writing this review, I feel a strong sense of déjà vu. As a keen fresher complete with plastic events wristbands and faint remains of facepaint (thank you, Tribal Warfare) – ‘Macbeth’ was the first thing at St. Andrews I wrote about. Though the ‘On the Rocks’ production of ‘Macbeth’ staged in the Castle, no less, was a much more compelling version than its October Byre-based cousin.

Looking at it truly objectively, the atmospheric location, beautiful night and ambient bagpipe-playing meant that for the play to be unsuccessful was near impossible. There was simply too much in its favour, even before the first ‘double double toil and trouble’. Having said that, the acting was also impressive – even the freezing temperature (still numbing even under four layers, mittens and a sleeping bag) didn’t detract from the experience.

The play started strongly; the witches not appearing from the direction you expected, necessitating some awkward swivelling, which was not easy in a sleeping bag.  The sky faded from twilight blue to deepest black throughout the (mercifully dry) evening, illustrating in the most eloquent yet simple way Macbeth's descent into moral darkness. Lady Macbeth was an immediately arresting figure, Caroline Howitt giving a confident, assured performance particularly in the first half of the play – though I did feel that the fall into madness could have provoked a more disturbing change in character; Howitt’s Macbeth seemed a touch unhinged from the word 'Go!'. 

There was not a weak performance amongst the whole cast, although the actors did as a basic rule of thumb tend to over-project their lines, underestimating the acoustics of the venue which were surprisingly good.  This decreased the potential for intimacy at appropriate moments, such as Macduff’s emotional reaction to the news of his family’s death, and some of Macbeth’s later soliloquies.  In addition, the performance space was undeniably on the generous side, the strongest moments coming when the characters were relegated to a fairly confined space, such as the scene chez Macbeth immediately post murder, which was pitch perfect. These are, however, very minor quibbles with a very strong show.

I loved the use of different tartans to separate the clans, particularly Lady Macbeth’s ensemble, which reminded me of a particularly fierce Vivienne Westwood collection.  There was also the most horrific ghost of Banquo I have ever seen, literally drooling bloody corn-syrup and provoking a tangible ripple of unease as he exited through the audience.

The cast and crew must be most highly commended on their creation of a truly distinct atmosphere. The sound of the seagulls, the surf crashing below on Castle Sands (it was so foul and fair a day indeed) and the bagpipes; the lights casting ghoulishly oversized shadows of the actors onto the ruined walls – it was easily the most Scottish ‘Scottish Play’ I have seen.  The sensory approach paid off, this was far from little black box theatre.

Images sourced from Mairi McGilveray (via The Stand) and St Andrews. Compiled by Nicole Horgan.