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.