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Written by Richard Stamp   
Published on Sunday, 10 August 2008

An improvised musical?  That's been done.  Comedy in a swimming pool?  Excuse me while I yawn.  Shakespeare on mopeds?  Went to that last year.  We Fringe regulars really have seen it all before.

But just occasionally - one spotlit, sunny day - we still happen on something which is truly fresh and new.  And that's why I'm so gushingly, breathlessly, uncontrollably excited about Belt Up Theatre's innovative new Macbeth, ambitiously staged across three days and a multitude of venues around the city centre.

Hold on there, you say.  Macbeth, innovative?  Surely some mistake.  And I confess, even the idea of a promenade (or walking-tour) Macbeth has been done to death already.  But this is more than a mere promenade; it's a truly immersive spectacle, constantly surprising, punctuated by unforgettable set-pieces, and making great use of the weird and derelict spaces hiding in the multitudinous outlets of the C venue chain.

It did, I'll admit, take some getting used to.  As the Three Witches drove us urgently and mercilessly around the venues, directed to the next performance by notes we found on the floor, one of my fellow audience likened it to watching Shakespeare inside The Crystal Maze.  But over the course of the three days, my attitude changed from bemusement to amusement to awe-struck wonder at the sheer creativity of it all; and my twice-daily appointments with the show became not inconveniences, but unmissable highlights of my Fringe.

Solid foundation

More than one vaunted site-specific performance has faltered on bad acting, so what a relief it was to find this Macbeth built on a solid theatrical foundation.  Dominic J Allan is electrifying in the title role, in turns hesitant, desperate and sinister.  All the great speeches were spot-on, but I found him at his best on the second day - as, leading us to his meeting with Banquo's assassins, he made us all unwilling conspirators in a very private and unexpectedly chilling murder.

Ah, Banquo.  I wish I could tell you about his ghost scene, but describing it in advance would ruin it for you.  I'll just say my jaw dropped to the floor when I appreciated the scale of what was happening around me; and it was still on the floor when I woke up, late and muzzy-headed, the following day.  And I'll say that in an audacious, rule-shattering, magnificent conceit, the actors dropped out of character and mixed with the audience - candidly discussing their production's challenges, right in the middle of the play.

When it came to Lady Macbeth, I thought I had the measure of her big scene.  It would be quiet and traditional, I predicted, actress Lucinda Farrett enjoying her moment in the spotlight and lapping up the attention of the crowd.  But I was wrong: without warning, Farrett took off running up the stairs, screaming the coveted lines into nothingness as we scrambled desperately in her wake.  Startling, absolutely; vandalous, perhaps; but I've seen no more compelling portrayal of her descent into madness and, believe me, I've seen many a Macbeth.

The one major weakness, I felt, was Malcolm's performance at the English court, as he first tricks and then reassures the fiery Macduff.  I'm not sure whether actor Edward Smith was making a point or simply having an off day, but the languid portrayal had me cheering, just for a moment, the opposing team.  But never mind; all was well by the final scene, with a resurgent Malcolm taking up his crown after a much-anticipated and duly exciting finale.

Matthew Springett, Naimh Walsh and Sarah Barker, the Three Witches, performed with boundless energy and a perfectly-judged zany style; and amidst a surprisingly large supporting cast, there were two further stand-outs for me.  The multi-talented Matthew Lacey stepped into many roles, but his interpretation of the soothsaying Old Man as a bar-room pickle momentarily threatened to steal the show.  He's a master of understated comedy, a selfless ensemble player and, it turned out, no mean dancer, too.  Meanwhile, Alexander Lawless' heart-stopping portrayal of Macduff's son brought a new horror to one of Macbeth's most clichéd scenes.

Rough diamond

Let's be clear, though: this diamond's still quite rough.  By releasing my fifth star, I'm overlooking a frankly shambolic opening session - forgiven because they were performing in a venue which hadn't quite been finished yet, and were interrupted by a man carrying a picnic table on his head.  But there were more predictable practical mistakes, as when the Macbeths' hurried bar-room conference was drowned out by Amy Winehouse; and at times, the audience could have used more guidance from the witches getting into position to appreciate the next scene.

And my goodness, there were a lot of stairs.  I'm not fit, but I am young, and it was still too much for me.  The great soliloquies weren't best appreciated while panting for breath; I liked the energy and the urgency and, yes, the running around, but at times all three were carried a little too far.

So it takes commitment to see this play: the commitment to turn up twice each day, the commitment to keep up with the action and, most of all, the commitment to work through your initial perplexity and embrace the whole undertaking with the enthusiasm it deserves.  I've given this five stars, but it won't be for everyone.  If you plan your every moment, if you need to feel in control, or if you want a quiet life - well, maybe it isn't for you.

But perhaps you relish a challenge; perhaps you enjoy the odd trip out of your comfort zone; perhaps, above all, you're looking for proof that there is something new under the sun.  If that's you, clear your schedules, clear your mind and abandon your expectations.  Whatever it takes, be at the C venue at 12 noon on Friday - surrender yourself to the witches, and prepare to enjoy the ride.

Macbeth will be performed just once more this year, starting at 12 noon on Friday 15 August.  At the same time on Saturday 23 August, Belt Up will be starting a similar (though two-day) promenade performance of Romeo and Juliet.

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