Bristol-born theatre company Insane Root is known for taking classic plays to unusual, and often abandoned, locations. So the little-known labyrinth of Bristol’s Redcliffe Caves makes the perfect space for their latest brooding production - Macbeth.

Image - JonCraig.co.uk

Beginning this year’s Bristol Shakespeare Festival in style, the play’s lantern-bearing porter (Andrew Kingston) met us in the mouth of the caves with some rudimentary rules. The basics were this: if the lantern moves, follow it, and if you’re in the way, we’ll gently shove you aside. Fair enough.

Audiences are limited to just 40 each time because of the constricted space inside, which gives a satisfying sense that you’re in for a special experience right from the start. As we crunched through the gritty depths of the caves, modern-day Bristol was left behind and 11th Century war-torn Scotland unfolded.

Even those unfamiliar with Macbeth will know of the play’s three weird sisters or their “double, double toil and trouble” chant. They were among the first characters to greet us and were genuinely disturbing. Shrouded in black cloth we never saw their faces as they wound around the audience like manipulative cats around their owners’ legs, clicking and spitting like rattlesnakes. This pivotal moment is played out to creepy perfection by Insane Root, and the dark prophecies in this opening scene set Macbeth on a road to murder and madness that steers the action for the rest of the play.

Though there are periods of promenading around the warren of red sandstone, much of the action takes place in a ‘banqueting hall’ with the audience seated around the walls. In the gloomy intimacy of the caves I did feel like a shadowy, shouldn’t-be-here witness to every dark deed, and all my senses were heightened among the low ceilings and dim light, so the beat of the war drums, shuffling of feet, screaming, banging and bells that echoed from unseen parts of the caves stirred up my imagination just as it was intended to.

This is a very physical production, but Ben Crispin and Nicola Stuart-Hill as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth deserve special note for their particularly visceral performances. Moments of sexual urgency and some brutal verbal abuse from Lady M to her husband give the sense of a complex and unbalanced relationship, helping us to better understand the drama that follows.

Being so close to the cast and action means the raw violence of the play has extra impact. It’s not always comfortable. The demise of Macduff’s daughter made many of us wince, and the final throat-slashing moments between Macduff and Macbeth were blood-splatteringly graphic. Watching Macbeth twitch his way through a slow and violent death is a moment that will stay with you after you leave. But, there are lighter moments too, particularly from Ross (Andrew Kingston again), who is a suitably entertaining drunk and provides us with a graphic explanation of brewer’s droop that raises a few titters.

In the words of those wild and weird sisters “something wicked this way comes” and this production of Macbeth is thoroughly wicked in every sense of the word – immoral, malevolent but oh so good.

Insane Root’s Macbeth runs until 14 July (book tickets here) and is just the first of this year’s Bristol Shakespeare Festival, which largely takes place in July at various locations around the city. If you’re looking for more Shakespeare in unusual spaces, then you might also try Folksy Theatre’s As You Like It on 22 and 23 July at Boiling Wells Amphitheatre, St Werburghs, The Barded Ladies: Henry VI part III from 21 to 24 July at Windmill Hill City Farm, Lord Chamberlain’s Men: Much Ado About Nothing on 29 July at Brandon Hill Bowling Green or A Midsummer Night’s Dream from 17 to 27 July at Berkeley Castle. As part of the celebrations for its 250th anniversary this year, Bristol Old Vic is staging a production of King Lear starring Timothy West from 18 June to 10 July. Or, catch Ran (an interpretation of King Lear), Amleto (Hamlet) and The Tempest as part of the Watershed Shakespeare on Film season in June. Our Celebrating Shakespeare in Bristol blog has lots of ideas for making the most of the performances in and around the city.

By Wendy Johnson 

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