Going underground

A chilling subterannean production of Macbeth.

Rarely have I been more relieved to leave a theatre, and I mean that in the nicest possible way. Belt Up Theatre -- a group of young actors based in York -- have shrewdly commandeered a proper showstopper of a venue for their production of Macbeth: Clerkenwell's House of Detention.

In truth, the dismal catacombs would make even Clitheroe Players' "Charley's Aunt" a special and spooky experience. These vaults banged up the mad and the bad (including children) between 1617 and 1893, and, rather disturbingly, the underground cells sit right underneath a primary school playground. In the splendid tradition of mummers, jugglers and other unsavoury itinerants, Belt Up are not going down well with the locals, for whom the exposure of what lies beneath is somewhat less than welcome.

We begin the performance following the siren wail of the Weird Sisters through the underground black labyrinth. The cells and walkways are illuminated by the odd exposed light bulb, or by guttering candles. This candlelight softens features, but rather thrillingly makes the eyes of the homicidal Macbeth glitter. The audience stumble upon scenes, and are either explicitly welcomed as fellow kinsmen, courtiers and thanes, or made eavesdroppers and voyeurs. It does help to be pretty tall in this spying game, or at least to move briskly and single-mindedly between scenes to get to the front, and I was often left a couple of rows back, seeing only chinks of the action. There are compensatory times, however, when one is so close to the events as to be co-opted into them.

This immersive smudging between actor and spectator makes for some unexpected images, as we group, complicit, around filthy deeds in dark corners. On the night I saw the show there was a large party in attendance from the City of London School, and it was an arresting sight, to see all the shining schoolboy faces framed by the vault arches, or caught haplessly in the cross fire between two actors: Shakespearean extras to all intents and purposes. (They also proved uncannily good at taking off the witches' theme tune in the loos later.) Sometimes the freezing, clammy building itself accidentally enhances the performers' work: when Macbeth is channelling supernatural power by starting up the witches' caterwaul, a big drop of icy water fell on my forehead, right on cue.

Belt Up perform Macbeth with just four male actors, and all the doubling and shuffling around in the dark certainly doesn't make it the most transparent of productions. Rather, it was a mood piece, an opportunity to scry on a serial killer in the stygian gloom. In this, perhaps the House of Detention could have been exploited yet further: as we exited there were tantalizing vignettes of prisoners pacing up and down or pooled on the floor in rags, and perhaps more of these sidelong, atmospheric flashes might have served the actors better than their still-dutiful recitation of text.

Rather neatly Belt Up finish their piece with the witches' chant: "When shall we three meet again?" as though they and their diabolic power of suggestion would simply move on to the next susceptible individual. One emerges, shivering, into the daylight, though by now even the Farringdon tube station works and repairs now look like so many infernal engines.

This theatrical experience is truly dire -- but in the best way.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
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New Harry Potter and the Cursed Child pictures: an analysis

What do the new cast photos tell us about what we can expect from the Harry Potter play?

With the first public performance only a week away, the team behind Harry Potter and the Cursed Child have released the first in costume cast photos of three of its stars: Harry, Ginny and their son, Albus.

But what do the new pictures tell us about what we can expect from the play? Here’s your annotated guide.

Harry

Harry is suited up like the civil servant we know he has become. When we left him at the end of book seven, he was working for the Ministry of Magic: JK Rowling has since revealed he became the youngest head of the Auror Office at 26, and the play description calls Harry “an overworked employee of the Ministry”. Jamie Parker’s costume suggests a blend of the traditional establishment with Harry’s rebelliousness and familiarity with danger.

Parker told Pottermore of the costume, “He’s wearing a suit because he’s a Ministry man, but he’s not just a bloke in a suit, that’s way too anonymous.”

Ginny

Ginny looks like a mix of the cool girl we know and love, blended with her mother, and a little something else. She has a perfect journalist’s bob (Ginny became a Quidditch reporter after a career as a professional player), paired with a “gorgeous, hand-knitted jumper” reminiscent of the Weasley’s Christmas sweaters. In silhouette, she might look like her mum with an edgier haircut, but with (literally) cooler colours and fabrics.

Actress Poppy Miller said the costume matches Ginny’s personality: “Kind and cool, exactly as I imagined her.”

Albus

Albus’s costume is perhaps more interesting for what it hides than what it reveals – we are given no suggestion of what house he might be sorted into at Hogwarts. This is particularly interesting knowing Albus’s nerves about being sorted: the final book ended with him asking his father, “What if I’m in Slytherin?”. Rowling writes, “The whisper was for his father alone, and Harry knew that only the moment of departure could have forced Albus to reveal how great and sincere that fear was.”

Actor Sam Clemmett said, “This is what Albus wears at the start of the show. I had the idea he was wearing James’s – his older brother’s – hand-me-downs. So I wanted him to feel quite uncomfortable, and be able to play with his clothes.”

His oversized second-hand clothes also emphasise how important the role of family inheritance will be in the play. The only reminder of Albus’s older siblings, they call to mind both his Weasley heritage (Ginny and her siblings were teased for their hand-me-down robes) and the enormous legacy of his father. The play description notes, “While Harry grapples with a past that refuses to stay where it belongs, his youngest son Albus must struggle with the weight of a family legacy he never wanted.”

Family portrait

Again, this group picture is interesting for absences – there are no Potter siblings here, further suggesting that Albus will be the main focus of this new story. It also continues to place an emphasis on family through the generations – if Albus donned a pair of specs, this could easily be a picture of James, Lily and Harry. Even the posture is reminiscent of the Mirror of Erised shot from the first movie.

An intriguing hint at what next week’s play might hold for audiences.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.