If there’s a funny side to Macbeth, be assured The HandleBards will find it

Crowning gory? Not when Kathryn Perkins plays Macbeth in The HandleBards’ Macbeth. Picture: Rah Petherbridge

SOMETHING wickedly funny this way comes in irreverent Shakespeare troupe The HandleBards’ all-female Macbeth, the first burst of York Theatre Royal’s Spring! Season on January 25 and 26.

Anyone fearing that “The Scottish Play” will be all gloom and doom instead will encounter “The Skittish Play”, with the tragedy-trampling promise of a frantic, delirious, full-of-beans farce delivered by Kathryn Perkins, Natalie Simone and Jenny Smith. 

Director Emma Sampson, now returned to Australia, says: “Working with The HandleBards is always the most fun job of my calendar year and the all-female cast has been a delight to direct. They are truly three of the funniest women I have ever met in my life.”

Tom Dixon, co-producer and co-founder of these cycling purveyors of environmentally sustainable Shakespeare, concurs. “Having three women playing all the roles brings real joy to poking fun at all the toxic masculinity in Macbeth. There’s a tradition of finding men dressed as women funny, and this way we can mock men by having women play them.

Jenny Smith’s Donalbain. Picture: Rah Petherbridge

“Lucy Green’s design has gone for a rocker biker theme, so lots of the costumes have bicycle motifs. Macbeth’s leather jacket has tyres on the shoulder pads, and for the motorbikes we have bicycle handlebars and children’s toy parts too.

“We also have Macbeth and MacDuff squaring off and comparing sizes, shall we say, because they’re such ‘manly men’, with all the humour that goes with that when played by women.”

Revelling in The HandleBards’  “very weird ‘Weird Sisters’” taking on all before them in Macbeth, Tom suggests Shakespeare’s tragedy is a joy because it is “such a giving play”, one that continues to draw myriad reinterpretations, whether on stage or screen, where Joel Coen’s The Tragedy Of Macbeth, starring  Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, is the latest addition.  

“I’m sure you can think that Shakespeare wrote some scenes with comedy in mind, not just the Porter’s scene but how Macbeth addresses everyone towards the end,” says Tom, The HandleBards’ artistic director. “That’s something we like to have fun with when finding a theme for our productions.

“In 2015, when we first did Macbeth, we went for a camping theme, with half baked beans/half tomato soup for all the blood, but Emma vetoed that for the new production. Back in 2015, it was the original [all-male] company that performed it, and we were very willing to get messy!

Every witch way: Jenny Smith, left, Natalie Simone and Kathryn Perkins in The Handlebards’ irreverent Macbeth. Picture: Rah Petherbridge

“Maybe Emma thought, ‘that was back then, but we don’t want it to be so messy’. Now it’s more about ‘meta-theatre’, with one of the characters always trying to play the clarinet behind every Macbeth soliloquy, much to Macbeth’s annoyance.”

Extracting the toxic masculinity from Macbeth meets a counterpoint in Lady Macbeth’s plea to “unsex me here”. “It’s that whole idea that being a woman and committing these acts [of murder] is something that a woman just wouldn’t do, which makes her such a fascinating character.

“We do explain why she says it but we come to a silly conclusion, where our Lady Macbeth really loves Strictly Come Dancing. What’s fun for us is that we’ll have these serious discussions about what masculinity means but then that breaks out into silly jokes.”

Not everyone finds The HandleBards’ pursuit of humour to be a barrel of laughs. ”To be fair, we do meet some people who don’t like our style, and that’s fair enough,” says Tom. “It’s not for everybody, but I would argue we have a wider reach than most, because a lot of people think Shakespeare is not for them, but, look, he wrote for the masses.

“We get this situation a lot of the time, where someone, usually a man, comes along with a friend who bought a ticket for them, and they come for a nice picnic, but they leave converted. Our shows can be a gateway to Shakespeare for them, thinking they would now be prepared to go to a more serious production.

Out, damned spot! Natalie Simone’s Lady Macbeth. Picture: Rah Petherbridge

“But our productions are always grounded in the truth of the text. We still hold the text in the highest esteem, and we keep the dialogue in period. We’re Shakespeare nerds but we like to have fun, and with Macbeth, there are so many iconic images, like the floating dagger and the Witches, it gives us themes to explore humorously.”

As a generalisation, The HandleBards can have more fun with a tragedy than a straight-up Shakespeare comedy. “A lot of what Shakespeare finds funny is now outdated, which sets a challenge, so it’s nice to be able to surprise people with a silly version of Macbeth, where we can take the tragedy and make it funny,” says Tom.

Last May’s Theatre Royal visit with Romeo & Juliet showed The HandleBards could make the most of a tricky mix of Mercutio-led comedy making way for murder and tragic teen suicides. Now prepare for an all-female, bewitching, unhinged, dead funny take on Macbeth.

The HandleBards present Macbeth, York Theatre Royal, January 25, 7.30pm, and January 26, 2pm and 7.30pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Copyright of The Press, York

More Things To Do in York and beyond as something wickedly funny this way comes. List No. 64, courtesy of The Press, York

When shall we three meet again? When the hurlyburly’s done in The HandleBards’ Macbeth at York Theatre Royal

AS the pantomime season draws to a close, Charles Hutchinson turns his focus to new seasons and new reasons to venture out.

The skittish play: The HandleBards in Macbeth, York Theatre Royal, January 25, 7.30pm; January 26, 2pm and 7.30pm

THE HandleBards were the first professional company to play York Theatre Royal after Lockdown 3, lifting the long gloom with a ridiculously funny Romeo And Juliet. Now the three-pronged troupe opens the Spring! Season with an all-female, bewitching, unhinged, bicycle-powered, dead funny take on Macbeth, starring Kathryn Perkins, Natalie Simone and Jenny Smith.

Expect music, mayhem, murders, unusual applications of cycling paraphernalia and more costume changes “than you can Shake a spear at” in this irreverent, skittish romp through Shakespeare’s tragic “Scottish play”. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Charles Court Opera in The Mikado, visiting Harrogate Royal Hall on Sunday. Picture: Bill Knight

Oh, Vienna: International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival’s New Year celebration, Harrogate Royal Hall, today and tomorrow, 7.30pm.

ENCHANTMENT awaits in the Magic Of Vienna New Year Gala Concert today when the National Festival Orchestra, conducted by Aidan Faughey, presents works by Johann Strauss, Mozart and Lehar. International opera stars James Cleverton and Rebecca Bottone will be the soloists.

Charles Court Opera’s London production of G&S’s The Mikado will be performed on Sunday night, accompanied by the National Festival Orchestra. Box office: 01422 323352 or at gsfestivals.co.uk.

One Iota: Debut album launch at the JoRo

York album launch of the month: One Iota, supported by Odin Dragonfly, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, January 21, 7.15pm

YORK band One Iota are launching their debut album, More Than You Take, recorded at the venerable Abbey Road studios, in London, and Fairview Studios, Willerby.

Adam Dawson, James Brown, Andy Bowen and Phil Everard’s alt-pop group grew out of their three-piece tribute to The Beatles – The Threetles, of course – when they acquired a taste for writing their own songs in lockdown.

One Iota’s debut live show promises a full line-up, featuring live string arrangements for the Fab Four-influenced songs marked by rich vocal harmonies, innovative melodies and “more hooks than a cloakroom”. Box office: josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.

Jacob George: Soloist for Schumann’s Violin Concerto at the Academy of St Olave’s January concert

By George, he’s back: Academy of St Olave’s Winter Concert, St Olave’s Church, Marygate, York, January 22, 8pm

THE Academy of St Olave’s Winter Concert features Jacob George, son of musical director Alan George, as soloist for Schumann’s Violin Concerto. He returns to solo duty for the York chamber orchestra after performing the Sibelius Violin Concerto in 2019.

The ASO’s first concert since last September’s sold-out resumption also includes two works inspired by Italy: Schubert’s Overture in the Italian Style, and Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony No. 4. Box office: academyofstolaves.org.uk.

Nunkie Theatre Company’s artwork for the third instalment of their M R James Project, A Warning To The Curious

Ghosts at play: Nunkie Theatre Company in M R James’s A Warning To The Curious, Theatre@41 Monkgate, York, January 28, 7.30pm

NUNKIE Theatre Company bring two of M R James’s eeriest and most entertaining ghost stories back to life in Robert Lloyd Parry’s candlelit one-man show. Lost Hearts, an early work, is constructed around one of his most memorable villains, the predatory scholar Mr Abney.

Lloyd Parry pairs it with perhaps James’s most poignant and personal story, inspired by his holidays in Aldeburgh: A Warning To The Curious’s account of a young archaeologist being haunted and hunted by the guardian of an ancient treasure. Has the English seaside ever looked so menacing? Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

Yvette Stone’s life-size puppet of The Creature, as first seen in Blackeyed Theatre’s Frankenstein in 2016. The new tour visits Scarborough next month. Picture: Alex Harvey-Brown

Monster smash: Blackeyed Theatre in Frankenstein, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, February 9 to 12

NICK Lane has reinterpreted John Ginman’s original 2016 script for Blackeyed Theatre, built around Mary Shelley’s Gothic novel, wherein nothing can prepare Victor Frankenstein for what he creates in pursuit of the elixir of life.

Eliot Giuralarocca’s highly theatrical production combines live music and ensemble storytelling with Bunraku-style puppetry to portray The Creature, in the life-size form of Yvonne Stone’s 6ft 4inch puppet, operated by up to three actors at once. Box office: 01723 370541 or at sjt.uk.com.

Four decades of topical songs and glamour: Fascinating Aida’s Liza Pulman, left, Dillie Keane and Adèle Anderson. Picture: Johnny Boylan

Never tire of satire: Fascinating Aida, York Barbican, February 12, 7.30pm

DILLIE Keane, Adèle Anderson and Liza Pulman’s latest Fascinating Aida tour show features old favourites, songs you haven’t heard before and some you wish you’d never heard in the first place.

“But the songs are mostly topical and the glamour remains unstoppable,” say the satirists, who have been capturing the political and social fixations of our times for nigh on 40 years, from 1984’s Sweet FA to 2012’s Cheap Flights and beyond. All tickets remain valid from the postponed May 5 2021 date. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.

Marc Almond fronting The Loveless, headliners at late-October’s Tomorrow’s Ghosts Festival in Whitby

Looking ahead to Halloween: Marc Almond’s The Loveless, headlining the Saturday bill at Tomorrow’s Ghosts Festival 2022, Whitby Pavilion, October 29

THE Loveless make their Tomorrow’s Ghosts debut with a headline set of their devilishly dark arts at Whitby Pavilion next Halloween.

In a project designed to take its constituent parts back to where they all began, Soft Cell singer Almond, Sigue Sigue Sputnik axeman Neal X, Iggy Pop’s touring rhythm section of Mat Hector and Ben Ellis and haunting Hammond organist James Beaumont “pledge themselves to the pulp appeal of garage rock in its rawest, most gripping guise”.

The Loveless draw material from Almond’s expansive back catalogue, Lou Reed and David Bowie’s canons, warped 1960s’ R&B staples and lost garage-rock gems. Box office: ticketweb.uk/event/tomorrows-ghosts-festival.

Artist Stephen Todd in his Sheffield studio

Weekend opening: Kentmere House Gallery, Scarcroft Hill, York, today and tomorrow

NEW year, New Beginnings and a website “going live again at last” adds up to the start of 2022 for Ann Petherick’s gallery in her home at Kentmere House, York.

Among the works on show today and tomorrow from 11am to 5pm are Allotments In Autumn paintings by featured artist Stephen Todd, from Sheffield.

Kentmere House Gallery also will be open for the York Residents Residents’ Weekend on January 29 and 30, 11am to 6pm each day.

Ain’t nothing like their dames? Now Robin Simpson and Paul Hawkyard team up as lovably hateful stepsisters in Cinderella

All revved up to read the riot act: Robin Simpson’s Manky, left, and Paul Hawkyard’s Mardy know how to make an entrance in Cinderella at York Theatre Royal

DIRECTOR Juliet Forster first noted Robin Simpson and Paul Hawkyard’s stage chemistry when they played two of the Rude Mechanicals in her Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in York in July 2018.

Now York Theatre Royal’s creative director has cast them us unruly stepsisters Manky and Mardy in Cinderella.

Both have dame roles in their panto locker, Robin last year donning the frocks for the Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime, having appeared in the Lawrence Batley Theatre panto in Huddersfield in the past few years.

“I was never under contract though; it was always just a case of them giving me a call early in the year, so it was a very free and easy arrangement,” he says.

Last Christmas, the Huddersfield panto was cancelled, and so Robin was able to continue an association with York Theatre Royal that began with The Little Mermaid in 2005 by appearing in Juliet and Evolution Productions’ writer-producer Paul Hendy’s first collaboration, the Travelling Pantomime. 

Robin Simpson in York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime last winter

“It was a lovely script and such a lovely show to do, when we were all so happy to be in that situation of being able to perform when so many places were in Tier 3, but there we were in Tier 2, taking every day as a blessing, testing every other day, but still worrying that it would be shut down or that someone would test positive,” he says.

“We were always living on a knife edge, but we got through most of the run and we had such a blast because people were delighted they could see a show again and were so happy to see their children enjoying themselves.”

Lawrence Batley Theatre’s creative team changed with a new chief exec coming in; likewise, York Theatre Royal was looking to move on from Berwick Kaler’s 40-year damehood.  

“Both theatres were starting afresh, and with me facing a choice, I thought it would be a good time for me to move on, as they could start with a clean slate at Huddersfield, and performing in York always feels like coming home,” says Robin, who lives in Slaithwaite, near Huddersfield.

“York Theare Royal is such a wonderful theatre and I’ve done so many shows on that stage. I think York is the city I’ve worked in the most, playing at the National Railway Museum and Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre as well.”

Paul Hawkyard, standing somewhat taller and wider than Robin at 6ft 2, was born and raised in Leeds, and, as chance would have had it, he had just moved back to Yorkshire after many years of living down south when the opportunity to appear alongside him in Cinderella came about.

Paul Hawkyard as Bottom in Juliet Forster’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre in York in 2019

“We’d loved being in the Scottish play [Macbeth] and A Midsummer Night’s Dream together in 2018,” he recalls. “Robin played the Wall in ‘the Wall Play’, I played Bottom, and we’d bring the show to a stop on numerous occasions, getting told to stop doing that!

“We were neighbours in the dressing room and got on so well, putting the world to rights, waiting for our cues, scrambling to the stage, so it’s lovely to be doing this show together.”

Actor and wildlife artist Paul has shed four stones since first playing Bottom. “I got diabetes and I packed in everything after that. I started the Blenheim Palace production in 2019 at one size and ended it at another. I don’t think the costume lady was very pleased!” he says of his fitness regime. “I started doing boxing workouts again and I’m no longer in the diabetic range.”

Paul subsequently left behind Bordon, Hampshire, for a new beginning in Selby. “Covid kicked in hard, and that was a big factor in deciding to return north. It meant I could come back because a lot of auditions are done on Zoom now, so you’re in a position where you don’t have to live in or near to London,” he says.

“I had a look around a lot of areas in Yorkshire and settled on Selby. I’d only been there once before, but I just wanted to be somewhere near York, as I love the place, and Selby is just down the road. I saw the house and that was it!”

Weight loss, house move, and now Paul has become engaged too, to Nicola Filshie. “I decided to marry the girl I’ve known for 26 years, who lives in Glasgow, so I spend a time a lot of time going up there. We’ve worked together a few times, and now we’ll be marrying next October,” he says.

Double trouble act: Robin Simpson and Paul Hawkyard’s comic tour de force as things turn ugly for Cinderella’s stepsisters at York Theatre Royal

Paul contacted Juliet Forster before making the move to Selby. “I said I was moving to Yorkshire and it would be lovely to see her, asking her to keep me in mind if anything came up.” 

Lo and behold, up came the Ugly Stepsister partnership with Simpson in Cinderella. “We are very different,” says Paul. “He’s quietly brilliant and I’m very loud!” 

Making his professional debut in pantomime, he first played Simple Simon in a Pantoni Productions show in his early 20s and has since appeared as Buttons, assorted dames and even the villainous Abanazar out in Dubai.

By comparison, Robin has always played dame. “Maybe a lot of dames see themselves as appealing to the adults, with the comedian turn for the children, but I’ve never thought of it like that. You have to appeal to everyone. I don’t want to alienate children,” he says.

Somehow, this even applies when playing the outwardly unappealing, antagonistic stepsisters Manky and Mardy. Robin and Paul may enter each time to ever more raucous jeering, but they are lovably absurd, boastful villains, mean but funny. “Aren’t we brilliant?” they jest. They are, as it happens!

COVID UPDATE 23/12/2021

NO performances of Cinderella from December 23 for a week after a Covid outbreak among cast members. Provisionally, the production will resume on December 30, with two extra performances being added to the run that ends on January 2. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Copyright of The Press, York

REVIEW: York Shakespeare Project’s Macbeth for the cyberpunk age

Emma Scott as Macbeth and Nell Frampton as The Lady in York Shakespeare Project’s Macbeth. Picture: John Saunders

York Shakespeare Project in Macbeth, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, until Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee; all sold out. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

SOMETHING wicked this way comes…eventually, delayed from March 2020 by lockdowns, rather than the notorious Macbeth curse per se.

Leo Doulton, “sometimes director, sometimes writer, repentant historian”, as his Twitter feed puts it, has persisted with his original vision of a “cyberpunk” Macbeth.

Eight cast members remain from the original unlucky-for-some 13, stopped in their tracks a week away from opening night last year; three have changed roles; five new additions have come on board, most notably Nell Frampton taking over from Amanda Dales as The Lady.

Frank Brogan’s Macduff. Picture: John Saunders

Crucially, however, Emma Scott’s Macbeth is still leading Doulton’s company, hurled into a dystopian, dizzying future as Doulton and his set and costume designer, Charley Ipsen, slice up Shakespeare’s dark, dreak tale of vaulting ambition, multiple murders and supernatural forces in new ways.

First of all, this is a shortened Macbeth, with no interval, no tedious, unfunny Porter scene, done and dusted in under two hours. Everything, everyone, is in a hurry; not once does Scott’s Macbeth sit down; nor do the guests at the dinner ruined for Macbeth by the ghost of Banquo (Clive Lyons). Instead, they stand, dotted around the perimeter of the John Cooper Studio’s rectangular black-box design.

Frampton’s The Lady is in a rush too, so much so, they trample loudly through several lines as they move around the fringes, imparting instructions in noisy boots. Tony Froud’s Ross and Frank Brogan’s gruff Yorkshireman Macduff are restless too, delivering a line, moving, delivering another, moving on again.

Nell Frampton’s The Lady. Picture: John Saunders

This sense of impermanence is deliberate, and maybe that is one reason why the walls are lined to the brim with swatches of wallpaper, rather than full rolls. Equally, this dissonant imagery is part of the cyberpunk mood board, just as the dried leaves around the ramps evoke Macbeth’s stultifying impact on nature’s course.

Doulton has responded to the pandemic, he says, by emphasising the uncertainty of the play’s inhabitants. “None of them, except perhaps the Witches, knows what’s going on,” he reasons. Hence a production that never stops moving in “an ever-changing world of illusory realities”.

In effect, all the world’s a stage here. The audience is seated around four ramps with a central dais that may or may not signify the Stone of Scone (but is not made of stone). Rarely is centre stage used as centre stage, except by the rightful king, Duncan (Elizabeth Elsworth).

Diana Wyatt as Second Witch. Picture: John Saunders

Scott’s Macbeth will as likely deliver a soliloquy from the up-lit recesses as from the epicentre; Frampton’s The Lady plots from the shadows; likewise, the discussions of Rhiannon Griffiths’s strategist Malcolm and Brogan’s exhausted Macduff are framed by the walls.

As for the spectral weird sisters, those midnight hags, the three Witches (Joy Warner, Diane Wyatt and Xandra Logan), they hover amid the parched twigs and branches on the mezzanine level, Macbeth never in touching distance, and they disappear from view as quickly as they enter.

The implication is that the once “worthy” Macbeth and The Lady know they will not be king and queen for the long haul, once their knives are out, hence that centre stage is so often barren.

Director Leo Doulton

On the one hand, this is an audacious directorial move by Doulton, but, on the other, you will likely have to move your head and body position more often than a learner driver negotiating that all-important three-point turn in their test but for much longer. The stage configuration is not the same as a theatre-in-the-round, where you become accustomed to not being able to see a face at all times. You may decide, on occasion, to sit and listen, rather than turning round.

In his interview, Doulton made the interesting point that Macbeth is not all about death, death, more death and the fear of death, although he did note: “It would be impossible to present Macbeth in the same way as when we started work on it before the pandemic. We’ve moved from a world where we fear quite specific things to one where we fear more pervasive, invisible ones, such as the pandemic and the climate crisis.”

Naming uncertainty, innocence and corruption’s constant presence as the themes and motifs that stood out in our new times, he suggested Shakespeare’s tragedy is “more concerned with the art of being human while alive and mortal: how to act, what legacy we’ll have, and how to understand a world far larger than us. Its deaths are from violence and the supernatural, not disease.”

Emma Scott’s Macbeth. Picture: John Saunders

In other words, this is not a Covid-clouded Macbeth, but one that in the absence of moral certainty and leadership, fears a longer damaging legacy, not least the impact of climate change, when there may no longer be trees to move from Birnam Wood to Dunsinane.

Nevertheless, Doulton and Ipsen have fun with the cyberpunk setting, serving up blue drinks, having blue rather than red blood, and staging the fight scenes in a stylised, no-contact manner, while Neil Wood’s menacing lighting captures both light and shade.

As for Scott’s Macbeth: at times, she is as much Hamlet as Macbeth, young, poetic, burdened; more worrier than warrior.  

Review by Charles Hutchinson

“It would be impossible to present Macbeth in the same way as when we started before the pandemic,” says director Leo Doulton

That clinches it: Emma Scott’s Macbeth leaps into the arms of Nell Frampton’s The Lady in rehearsal for York Shakespeare Project’s Macbeth. Picture: John Saunders

THE curse of Macbeth combined with Lockdown 1’s imposition to put a stop to York Shakespeare Project’s Scottish Play just one week before its March 2020 opening.

Rising like the ghost of Banquo, but sure to be better received, Leo Doulton’s resurrected production will run at Theatre@41, Monkgate, from tomorrow’s open dress rehearsal (26/10/2021) to Saturday as the 37th play in the York charity’s mission to perform all Shakespeare’s known plays in a 20-year span.

Doulton will be casting Emma Scott’s Macbeth into a dystopian future, using a cyberpunk staging to bring to life this dark tale of ambition, murder and supernatural forces.

“It would be impossible to present Macbeth in the same way as when we started work on it before the pandemic,” he says. “We’ve moved from a world where we fear quite specific things to one where we fear more pervasive, invisible ones, such as the pandemic and the climate crisis.”

Here, on the eve of something wicked this way coming, director Leo Doulton answers CharlesHutchPress’s questions. 

Macbeth director Leo Doulton

You had to put your production on hold only a week from opening night in March 2020. How have you gone about building up it up again? Did you start from scratch? Pick up where you left off?

“The image I’m using with the cast and crew is imagining that our 2020 production was a floating city, where light and dark were clearly divided. That city has now crashed, and we’re building something new in the rubble. Some of the rubble can be reused, other bits repurposed into something else, and other parts are from other places entirely.

“More practically, the answer is ‘a bit of both’. I always wanted to make sure that as many of the original cast as were able could re-join us, so that led to a degree of continuity.

“Some of the core ideas, like cyberpunk as a genre of systems beyond mortal understanding, remained useful. But any production has to speak to its audience, and is made by people, all of whom have been changed by the past years.

“Once we knew the show was definitely coming back, I sat down and re-read the play from a blank script, noting which themes, motifs and ideas stood out to me in our new times: uncertainty and innocence, corruption as a constant presence and so on. From that, and discussions with the whole team, came the latest evolution of the show.”

How many cast members and roles have you had to change?

“Five cast members out of 13 and one member of the production team, plus three members of the original cast shifting to new parts. It was especially sad to lose Amanda Dales as The Lady; she was just about to deliver a wonderful performance.

“However, I’m very pleased to have so many new people entering the cast. There’s a unique bond among those of us who entered the pandemic together, but that could easily lead to stagnation were it not for having new thoughts and approaches joining the room, without preconceptions based on the previous iteration of this production.”

Tony Froud’s Ross, with Emma Scott’s Macbeth, left, and Elizabeth Elsworth’s Duncan, rehearsing a scene for Leo Doulton’s Macbeth production. Picture: John Saunders

Death and the fear of death is everywhere in Macbeth, as indeed it has been around us all since March 2020 in these pandemic times. How has that had an impact on how you present Macbeth and those who will be watching it?

“Most obviously, the pandemic means that our audience and actors will be socially distanced and we’ll be asking people to wear masks to keep one another safe.

“You know, I’m not sure Macbeth is an especially death-heavy play, certainly not more so than any of Shakespeare’s other tragedies.

“While I’m confident that someone will treat us all to a Covid-Macbeth, to my mind the play is more concerned with the art of being human while alive and mortal: how to act, what legacy we’ll have, and how to understand a world far larger than us. Its deaths are from violence and the supernatural, not disease.

“In many ways, that is the main change caused by the pandemic. Before it, this was a production where we made a world of clearly defined good and evil; where evil was a known thing you could point at.

“Now, we have spent a long time in a world of lingering menace; where something as innocuous as a doorknob might be a deathly threat. People have been isolated. Uncertainty about what will happen next, or who might be infectious, has infiltrated daily life. Everybody has been affected.

“I’m sure that played into a reading where the Macbeths no longer open a door that taints them alone – the whole world is touched by what comes through, and few remain entirely unchanged. The uncertainty of the play’s inhabitants is more important now: none of them, except perhaps the Witches, knows what’s going on. We’ve reshaped the play to draw out those ideas.” 

Why are you setting Macbeth in a dystopian cyberpunk future?

“Because I am a colossal nerd!

“More seriously: you’ll be familiar with period productions, productions in modern dress and really abstract conceptual productions.

“Period productions allow the play to sit in the world it’s written for, but demand the audience do advance reading to see beyond Ye Olde Worlde Thingy. Modern dress gives a cultural language that the audience understand but struggle every time someone mentions a sword or castle. Conceptual productions are great at pulling out the ideas of the play, but often lose some of the dramatic effect.

Clive Lyons as Banquo in York Shakespeare Project’s Macbeth. Picture: John Saunders

“An imagined future gives us the best of all three: a world built using a cultural language the audience understand, while also supporting the play’s world and bringing out its ideas.

“In this case, cyberpunk is a genre that features individuals in a system far beyond them, in an ever-changing world of illusory realities that is corrupted in many ways. It’s perfect for Macbeth– and because we’d built a new world just for this production, it meant that it was very easy to rebuild that world for 2021 in ways that wouldn’t have been possible with other approaches to the play.

“Cyberpunk is an exciting genre for Macbeth, allowing us to explore Shakespeare’s ideas of lurking corruption, a disintegrating reality and the search for some moral certainty.”

How will that be reflected in Charley Ipsen’s set and costume design?

“Ooh, you’re in for a treat. Once you’ve entered the space, you’ll feel the play’s world surrounding you and creeping in. But I’m not going to spoil it, other than to say that Charley’s made something really rather special: they’ve outdone themselves, especially on a tight budget.”

If one play were going to stop York Shakespeare Project in its tracks, it would always be the Scottish Play. Lo and behold, only two productions from the finish line, the curse of Macbeth meets the curse of Covid! Discuss…

“If I had a quid for every time I’ve heard that joke since March 2020.

“I can’t say I’m superstitious in that way. Though our dramaturge, Dr Kelsey Ridge, did share an interesting theory about why the superstition arose: Macbeth is a play that will almost always bring an audience, which means that it’s often one of the last plays a company will do to try and balance the books before going bankrupt.

“Not sure if it’s true, but it’s a good theory.”

Vaulting ambition: Emma Scott in rehearsal for her lead role as Macbeth in York Shakespeare Project’s Macbeth. Picture: John Saunders

Macbeth is back in the headlines for the James McArdle-Saoirse Ronan coupling in Yael Farber’s staging of The Tragedy Of Macbeth at the Almeida, London. What will the coupling of Emma Scott (she/her) as Macbeth and Nell Frampton (they/them) as The Lady bring to your production?

“I haven’t seen that production, having been in York, but having heard that it runs at three and a half hours, apparently our actors at the very least speak faster! (Our Macbeth lasts for only one hour and 40 minutes with no interval.)

“There are as many ways of playing The Lady and Macbeth as there are actors.

“Spoilers ahead: I think the magic Nell and Emma bring is the tenderness of the initial relationship, followed by its unravelling as both are racked with the poison they invite into the world.

“They’re both young, and in many ways that’s helped give their Macbeths’ relationship interesting flavours of hopefulness, enthusiasm and almost innocence at the start of the play. It’s heart-breaking to see that fall apart.

“Nell was playing Malcolm in 2020, and they’ve certainly shown their range as an actor, creating a Lady with a delicious mix of urgency, love, and craving to become something more. 

“Emma’s Macbeth has been cooking since late 2019. There’s power and monstrosity, but underpinning it all an almost boundless humanity, caught up in society, temptation, the need for security, the want of a legacy, and of course the great question: do our actions matter in any moral sense? She’s created something very special. 

“The relationship Nell and Emma have crafted between The Lady and Macbeth is remarkably done:  one striding ever onwards into corruption, the other trying to step back from something she cannot escape. It’s been great fun rehearsing with them, especially since both are, in their own ways, scholars of early modern European literature and interested in cyberpunk and related genres.”

When did you first see a production of Macbeth and what do you recall of it?

“I remember watching about five minutes of the Ian McKellen/Judi Dench production at school, though beyond it being rather dark I remember very little. It’s now one of my favourite productions.

Nell Frampton as The Lady in the York Shakespeare Project rehearsal room. Picture: John Saunders

“Like many people, Shakespeare at school was treated more as a matter of translation than as a source of drama and joy.

“It was years later, when I was just starting to discover why people love Shakespeare, that I first saw a full production of Macbeth: a very intense one at the Young Vic, which managed to compress the whole thing into an hour of action, fear and dread.

What makes Macbeth a great play to stage and, equally, a great part to play?

“For the play: I could answer this for hours; this is one of my favourite plays! How compact the play is, the beautiful lines, the range of ways to approach it for each different team, the vastness and intimacy of its ideas about humanity and the world, the way it presents the Macbeths’ ever-worsening bargains and compromises.

“I’d argue that many plays can be great in the right hands, but Macbeth’s range of ideas and vivid archetypal roles makes the task far easier.

“As a role, Macbeth gives the actor a lot of opportunities to make it their own. With several iconic monologues and 30 per cent of the lines, the actor can build a world around their interpretation and always find something new.

“Those monologues are iconic for a reason: Macbeth’s reflections on the right way to live, what we leave behind, and his shifting views on his own moral state give the actor plenty to play with. You start playing someone who is virtuous and worthy and step by step leaves that behind.

What makes Macbeth a difficult play to stage and, equally, a difficult part to play?

“Mostly, people constantly bringing up those who have gone before! It can be very distracting, though I’ve got rather good at ignoring what others have done to try and read it as though I didn’t know its long tradition, and it was a new play.

York Shakespeare Project’s poster for Leo Doulton’s cyberpunk Macbeth

“It’s pleasingly intricate. Even after an extra two years working on it, I haven’t reached the bottom of what it can do, while still being amazed at how clear it all is.

“As a role, it offers the chance to make a genuine masterpiece. But that requires excellence across the board, both in mechanical things like vocal, physical and text-preparation techniques, and in the deeper artistic matters of finding and nurturing an interpretation, working with the rest of the team, and bringing that to life. I do think Emma has risen astoundingly to the challenge.”

How have you found the experience of working on your second YSP production after your 2019 debut?

“Fantastic. I was very pleased to direct Anthony And Cleopatrain 2019, becoming part of a larger mission. Coming back for Macbeth in 2020 was a delight; coming back after a year of lockdowns has been a joy. Working with people who love Shakespeare so much, with such a strong sense of purpose, and a real range of approaches and ideas, is always a pleasure.”

Is there anything else you would like to add?

“The whole team have done amazing work. Even if you’re not normally a Shakespeare person, this is a great play to try: it’s pacy, dives from love to fear to action to the supernatural, and, at the end of the day, only costs £5 if you come on the right day, and we’ll be doing what we can to make it as safe as possible. Hopefully, we’ll see you there!”

York Shakespeare Project in Macbeth, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, October 26 to 30, 7.30pm and 2.30pm Saturday matinee. SOLD OUT. Box office for returns only: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

More Things To Do in and around York, as Levelling up, peas and wickedness this way come. List No. 54, courtesy of The Press

Ben Moor and Joanna Neary: Mini-season of stand-up theatre and comedy at Theatre@41

MOOR, Moor, Moor and much more, more, more besides are on Charles Hutchinson’s list for the week ahead.

Surrealist stand-up theatre of the week, Ben Moor and Joanna Neary mini-season, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, today until Saturday

BEN Moor and Joanna Neary combine to deliver five offbeat comedy shows in three days in their Theatre@41 debut.

Moor contemplates performance, friendship and regret in his lecture about lectures, Pronoun Trouble, tonight at 8pm. Tomorrow, at 7.30pm, Neary’s multi-character sketch show with songs and impersonations, Wife On Earth, is followed by Moor’s Who Here’s Lost?, his dream-like tale of a road trip of the soul taken by two outsiders.

Saturday opens at 3pm with Joanna’s debut children’s puppet show, Stinky McFish And The World’s Worst Wish, and concludes at 7pm with the two-hander BookTalkBookTalkBook, a “silly author event parody show”. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

Gunpowder Guy in Horrible Histories’ Barmy Britain. Picture: Frazer Ashford

Alternative history lesson of the week: Horrible Histories’ Barmy Britain, Grand Opera House, York, today at 1.30pm, 7pm; tomorrow, 10.30am and 7pm; Saturday, 3pm, 7pm; Sunday, 11am, 3pm

WHAT if a Viking moved in next door? Would you lose your heart or head to horrible Henry VIII? Can evil Elizabeth entertain England? Will Parliament survive Gunpowder Guy? Dare you stand and deliver to dastardly Dick Turpin?

Questions, questions, so many questions to answer, and here to answer them are the Horrible Histories team in Barmy Britain, a humorously horrible and eye-popping show trip to the past with Bogglevision 3D effects. Box office: atgtickets.com/york

Hannah Victoria in Tutti Frutti’s The Princess And The Pea at York Theatre Royal Studio

Reopening of the week: York Theatre Royal Studio for Tutti Frutti’s The Princess And The Pea, today to Tuesday; no show on Sunday

YORK Theatre Royal Studio reopens today with a capacity reduced from 100 to 71 and no longer any seating to the sides.

First up, Leeds children’s theatre company Tutti Frutti revive York playwright Mike Kenny’s adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s story, set in a place where what you see is not what it seems: the Museum of Forgotten Things.

Three musical curators delve into the mystery of how a little green pea ended up there in an hour of humour, songs and a romp through every type of princess you could imagine. Box office and show times: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Artist Anita Bowerman and Yorkshire Shepherdess Amanda Owen at Dove Tree Art Gallery and Studio

Open Studios of the week: Anita Bowerman, Dove Tree Art Gallery and Studio, Back Granville Road, Harrogate, Saturday and Sunday, 10am to 5pm

HARROGATE paper-cut, watercolour and stainless steel artist Anita Bowerman opens her doors for refreshments and a browse around her new paintings of Yorkshire and Yorkshire Shepherdess Amanda Owen, prints and mugs. 

“It’s a perfect chance for inspiration before the Christmas present-buying rush starts,” says Anita, who has been busy illustrating a new charity Christmas card for the Yorkshire Air Ambulance featuring the Yorkshire Shepherdess.

Rachel Croft: York singer-songwriter performing at Drawsome! day of activities at Spark:York as part of York Design Week on Saturday

York Design Week gig of the week: Drawsome!, Mollie Coddled Talk More Pavilion, Spark:York, Saturday, from 3pm

AS part of Drawsome’s day of workshops and an Indy Makers Market to complement MarkoLooks’ print swap exhibition of illustrators and printmakers, York’s Young Thugs Records are curating a free line-up of live music.

Taking part will be The Hazy Janes, Kell Chambers and Rachel Croft, singer, songwriter and illustrator to boot.

Breabach: First touring band to play Selby Town Hall in “far too long”. Picture: Paul Jennings

Welcome back of the week: Breabach, Selby Town Hall, Saturday, 8pm

GLASGOW folk luminaries Breabach will be the first touring band to play Selby Town Hall for almost 20 months this weekend.

“Leading lights of the Scottish roots music scene and five-time Scots Trad Music Award winners, they’re a really phenomenally talented band,” says Chris Jones, Selby Town Council’s arts officer. “It’s an absolute thrill to have professional music back in the venue. It’s been far too long!” Box office: 01757 708449, at selbytownhall.co.uk or on the door from 7.30pm.

Levelling up in York: Jazz funksters Level 42 in the groove at York Barbican on Sunday night

Eighties’ celebration of the week: Level 42, York Barbican, Sunday, doors 7pm

ISLE of Wight jazz funksters Level 42 revive those rubbery bass favourites Lessons In Love, The Sun Goes Down (Living It Up), Something About You, Running In The Family et al at York Barbican.

Here are the facts: Mark King’s band released 14 studio, seven live and six compilation albums, sold out Wembley Arena for 21 nights and chalked up 30 million album sales worldwide. 

This From Eternity To Here tour gig has been rearranged from October 2020; original tickets remain valid. Box office for “limited availability”: yorkbarbican.co.uk.

Writes of passage: Musician and now author Richard Thompson

Guitarist of the week:  Richard Thompson, York Barbican, Monday, doors 7pm

RICHARD Thompson plays York Barbican on the back of releasing Beeswing, his April autobiography subtitled Losing My Way And Finding My Voice 1967-1975.

An intimate memoir of musical exploration, personal history and social revelation, it charts his co-founding of folk-rock pioneers Fairport Convention, survival of a car crash, formation of a duo with wife Linda and discovery of Sufism.

Move on from the back pages, here comes Richard Thompson OBE, aged 72, songwriter, singer and one of Rolling Stone magazine’s Top 20 Guitarists of All Time. Katherine Priddy supports. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.

That clinches it: Emma Scott’s Macbeth leaps into the arms of Nell Frampton’s The Lady in rehearsals for York Shakespeare Project’s Macbeth. Picture: John Saunders

Something wicked this way comes…at last: York Shakespeare Project in Macbeth, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, October 26 to 30, 7.30pm and 2.30pm Saturday matinee

THE curse of Macbeth combined with Lockdown 1’s imposition to put a stop to York Shakespeare Project’s Scottish Play one week before its March 2020 opening.

Rising like the ghost of Banquo, but sure to be better received, Leo Doulton’s resurrected production will run as the 37th play in the York charity’s mission to perform all Shakespeare’s known plays over 20 years.

Doulton casts Emma Scott’s Macbeth into a dystopian future, using a cyberpunk staging to bring to life this dark tale of ambition, murder and supernatural forces. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

Ballet Black dancers Marie Astrid Mence, left, Isabela Coracy, Cira Robinson, Sayaka Ichikawa, Jose Alves, Ebony Thomas and Alexander Fadyiro in Mthuthuzeli’s The Waiting Game

Dance show of the week: Cassa Pancho’s Ballet Black, York Theatre Royal, Tuesday, 7.30pm

ARTISTIC director Cassa Pancho’s Ballet Black return to York with a double bill full of lyrical contrasts and beautiful movement.

Will Tuckett blends classical ballet, poetry and music to explore ideas of home and belonging in Then Or Now; fellow Olivier Award-winning choreographer Mthuthuzeli November contemplates the purpose of life in The Waiting Game. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

From Limpsey Gate Lane, August, by Sue Slack

Exhibition of the week: Fylingdales Group of Artists, Blossom Street Gallery, Blossom Street, York, until November 30

TWELVE Fylingdales Group members are contributing 31 works to this exhibition of Yorkshire works, mainly of paintings in oils, acrylics, gouache and limonite.

Two pieces by Paul Blackwell are in pastel; Angie McCall has incorporated collage in her mixed-media work and printmaker Michael Atkin features too.

Also participating are David Allen, fellow Royal Society of Marine Artist member and past president David Howell, Kane Cunningham, John Freeman, Linda Lupton, Don Micklethwaite, Bruce Mulcahy, Sue Slack and Ann Thornhill.

Something wicked this way comes…at last as York Shakespeare Project’s delayed Macbeth takes a bewitched cyberpunk turn

Vaulting ambition: Emma Scott in rehearsal for her lead role as Macbeth in York Shakespeare Project’s Macbeth. Picture: John Saunders

THE curse of Macbeth combined with Lockdown 1’s imposition to put a stop to York Shakespeare Project’s Scottish Play just one week before its March 2020 opening.

Rising like the ghost of Banquo, but sure to be better received, Leo Doulton’s resurrected production will run at Theatre@41, Monkgate, from October 26 to 30 as the 37th play in the York charity’s mission to perform all Shakespeare’s known plays in a 20-year span.

Doulton is casting Macbeth into a dystopian cyberpunk future, using a dramatic new staging to bring to life this dark tale of ambition, murder and supernatural forces.

“This production has had an unusually long journey, and I’m grateful to everyone involved for their wonderful creativity and resilience over the years, whether they’re a veteran of the original production or a newcomer,” he says.

Nell Frampton as The Lady in the York Shakespeare Project rehearsal room. Picture: John Saunders

“It would be impossible to present Macbeth in the same way as when we started work on it before the pandemic. We’ve moved from a world where we fear quite specific things to one where we fear more pervasive, invisible ones, such as the pandemic and the climate crisis. 

“Cyberpunk is an exciting genre for Macbeth, allowing us to explore Shakespeare’s ideas of lurking corruption, a disintegrating reality, and the search for some moral certainty. It is a magnificent play, and I look forward to sharing this production at long last.”

YSP secretary Tony Froud says: “We were all disappointed not to see Macbeth take place last year, when we were so close to the finish line, especially after the hard work of Leo and the cast and crew.

“During lockdowns and restrictions on performance, we’ve done our best to stay engaged with our community with online play readings and two successful outdoor productions of Sit Down Sonnets, but we’ve always been planning to return to this play and the resumption of our 20-year mission.

Tony Froud’s Ross, with Emma Scott’s Macbeth, left, and Elizabeth Elsworth’s Duncan, rehearsing a scene for Leo Doulton’s Macbeth production. Picture: John Saunders

“We’re really pleased that Leo and so many of the cast have been able to return, and we can’t wait to share this production with a wider audience.” 

York Shakespeare Project in Macbeth, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, October 26 to 30, 7.30pm and 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

Tickets cost £15; £5 for students, means-tested benefit recipients and under-18s. The October 26 performance is an open dress rehearsal with tickets at £5.

YSP’s plot summary

MACBETH receives a prophecy from a trio of witches that one day he will become king. Torn between duty and the chance of greatness, Macbeth and his devoted wife murder King Duncan and take the throne for themselves. Macbeth slowly turns into a tyrant, as corrupt as the strange witches. Meanwhile, the forces of virtue realise what Macbeth has become and a civil war begins.

Clive Lyons as Banquo in York Shakespeare Project’s Macbeth. Picture: John Saunders

Cast

Macbeth: Emma Scott

The Lady: Nell Frampton

Banquo, Siward: Clive Lyons

Fleance, Donalbain, Son, Young Siward: Meredith Stewart

Macduff: Frank Brogan

Duncan, Lady Macduff, Menteith: Elizabeth Elsworth

Malcolm: Rhiannon Griffiths

Lennox: Andrea Mitchell

Ross: Tony Froud

Angus: Sarah-Jane Strong

First Witch, First Murderer, Doctor: Joy Warner

Second Witch, Second Murderer, Gentlewoman: Diana Wyatt

Third Witch, Third Murderer, Caithness, Seyton: Xandra Logan

That clinches it: Emma Scott’s Macbeth and Nell Frampton’s The Lady embrace. Picture: John Saunders

Creative crew

Director: Leo Doulton

Set and costume designer: Charley Ipsen

Lighting designer: Neil Wood

Sound designer: Jim Paterson

Poster design: Charles Keusters

Company back story

YORK Shakespeare Project (YSP) was established in 2001 with a commitment to perform all of Shakespeare’s known plays in York over 20 years.

Debut production Richard III took place in 2002, since when YSP has staged 35 productions, covering 36 of Shakespeare’s plays. Despite the pandemic-enforced delays, YSP still plans to complete the project in 2022.

For more information, go to: yorkshakespeareproject.org.

Macbeth director Leo Doulton

Coming up at CharlesHutchPress: Director Leo Doulton discusses his dystopian, cyberpunk Macbeth.

Actor, musician and now sonneteer, Aran MacRae joins York Shakespeare Project for Sonnets At The Bar in ‘secret garden’

“Secret mission”: York actor Aran MacRae looks forward to making his York Shakespeare Project debut as a sonneteer in Sonnets At The Bar in the “secret garden” of the Bar Convent Living Heritage Centre

ARAN MacRae joins Lindsay Waller Wilkinson, Luke Tearney and Josh Roe in the four new sonneteers corralled for York Shakespeare Project’s Sonnets At The Bar 2021 from this evening.

Not that Aran is “new” to the acting scene. Far from it, the York actor, singer, songwriter and self-taught guitarist and percussion player returned to his home city in March 2019 after building momentum in his career in London, Europe and beyond.

After training in musical theatre for three years at the Guildford School of Acting, post-graduation in 2017 he had originated the role of 14-year-old Tink in the West End premiere of the Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf musical Bat Out Of Hell at the London Coliseum, following up with the Canadian run at the Ed Mirvish Theatre in Toronto.

“If you shave off your beard, you’ve got the part,” he was told at the last audition: a wonderful start to life on the professional boards.

“We did the show for 13 months and it gave me such an insight to musical theatre and to rock’n’roll too, going to Toronto and falling in love with a beautiful woman who’d just joined the cast there,” he says.

Aran then appeared in the immersive promenade production of Jonathan Larson’s Rent at the world’s oldest working paper mill, Frogmore Paper Mill in Apsley, Hertfordshire, in July 2018 and sang in Midas’s Twelve Tenors tour across Europe and South Korea in 2018 and early 2019.

His profile on Mandy states he is now “busking in my hometown of York, playing acoustic covers and putting together lyrics and music for solo material”.

Sonnets At The Bar brings him back to theatre work in the city where, in York College days, he had starred in York Stage Musicals’ The Flint Street Nativity and Mayhem, NUEMusic Theatre’s Bare, Bat Boy The Musical and Rent and Pick Me Up Theatre’s Evita, Che Guevara beard et al. If memory serves, he was the singer in The Frizz too, in even younger days.

“I’d been living in Potters Bar in London, plying my trade as an actor, when I decided to come back to York in Spring 2019,” says Aran. “I was aware of York Shakespeare  Project and got in touch straightaway to join their mailing list because I knew that Macbeth and The Tempest were coming up and I was really up for directing The Tempest.  

“Then ‘the Cloud’, as I shall call it, came along and slowed things down; Macbeth was put back, but then I saw they were doing Sonnets At The Bar and I jumped on to it.

Aran MacRae originating the role of Tick in Bat Out Of Hell at the London Coliseum in 2017

“I’m a fan of Shakespeare’s sonnets: not that  they need a lot of investigating, but they explore the concept of love in a manner full of thought and consideration, and what is very special about them is the answer that’s given to any Shakespeare question: they are timeless and you can find modern-day parallels in them.”

Directed by Emilie Knight and produced by fellow company regular Maurice Crichton, Sonnets At The Bar 2021 will be staged in the “secret garden” of the Bar Convent Living Heritage Centre, in Blossom Street, from tonight to August 7.

Emilie, who played a Covid nurse in last year’s Sit-down Sonnets at Holy Trinity churchyard in Goodramgate, has come up with the conceit of the Bar Convent being in use for all sorts of community centre-type activities, some of them outdoors in the garden on account of Covid, with the sonneteers either hosting classes or groups or attending them, all under the watchful eye of the caretaker, Mr Barrowclough.

In YSP’s now time-honoured fashion, each character has a sonnet to set up, the pairing of character and sonnet opening up unknown sonnets in an accessible way or giving well-known ones a new angle.

Aran will be performing Sonnet 25, Let Those Who Are In Favour With Their Stars, in the role of Paul, clerk to the parish council in this age of new awareness of parish-council machinations after the explosive Jackie Weaver and Handworth shenanigans on Zoom went global.

“He’s a little bit righteous, I think,” he says. “He’s not got a point to prove but when he witnesses injustice, he takes it on his shoulders to deal with it, leaving him between a rock and a hard place.

“He has to have a lot of integrity and non-bias and that’s an incredibly lofty responsibility, when you’re dealing with care for the community and injustice, though what he’s witnessed is more to do with internal parish [council] matters, rather than the community.”

Analysing Sonnet 25, Aran says: “My sonnet is about idol worship, and I can certainly find modern-day resonances within it. I’m sure Shakespeare wasn’t thinking of me 420 years ago (!), but I’m thinking of him 420 years later, taking me to an emotional place. It’s like time travel.”

Aran has relished rehearsals under Emilie’s guidance. “It’s been really free spirited, and that freedom has been wonderful, especially in ‘the Cloud’,” he says. “Not only does everyone jump in and sound ideas off each other, but Emilie basically gave each of us a small piece of text to set up each sonnet and said, ‘if you’d like to ad-lib the lead-in to the sonnet, go for it, or if you’d like to add to it, do that’.

Che days: Aran MacRae’s Che Guevara with Robyn Grant’s Eva Peron in Pick Me Up Theatre’s Evita at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, in April 2013

“That was quite testing for me because I then had to look at the structure of what the character was going to say, working out how the parish clerk would communicate in a way that was more astute and level-headed than I would be in that situation!”

Initially, Aran had envisaged “just performing the sonnet and walking off with my chest out”. “But doing it this way, building up a character, allows me to test my writing skills too…because if I’m going to be in a film, I’m going to have to write it myself!” he says.

Where does Aran see his future? “Doing Bat Out Of Hell gave me an insight into where I want to direct my abilities. I loved being in a musical, with all that high energy and lots of post-teens diving around saying ‘this is it’, ‘it’s punk!’, but sometimes I wanted to be thinking more about the task in hand, when it was on stage.

“I want to pursue my career by continuing to work in musical theatre but also look to break into theatre, even though it’s such a closed circle.

“Coming back to the city where I’d lived from the age of three to 21, suddenly there was that ‘Cloud’ and a lot of solitary confinement, so I’ve been reading the classics after I’ve not had the time to read for years, in order to consider it as a career when it’s your heart that calls you to this profession.”

One classical role Aran will not be giving us is his Lady Macbeth in York Shakespeare Project’s promenade production of Macbeth in October, staged at Theatre@41 Monkgate by director Leo Doulton in a “corrupted world of moving forests, daggers from the dark and cyberpunk dystopia, falling from civilisation into a civil war between darkness and light”.

Lady Macbeth, Aran?. “I put my two-penneth in at the auditions to play her as I thought, ‘what better chance to play one of the great string-puller roles, like in The Hunger Games in a past of such apocalyptic brutality, with suave sophistication,” he says. “I gave it a good shot…”

The role has gone to Nell Frampton instead, but Aran can still apply to direct The Tempest, with no production dates set in place yet for York Shakespeare Project’s final play.

York Shakespeare Project presents Sonnets At The Bar 2021, Bar Convent Living Heritage Centre, Blossom Street, York, today (30/7/2021) until August 7; no show on August 2. Performances: 6pm and 7.30pm nightly, plus 4.15pm on both Saturdays. Tickets: 01904 623568, at yorkthreatreroyal.co.uk or in person from the YTR box office.

Tragic news as York Shakespeare Project confirms Macbeth run. Auditions ahoy!

Emma Scott: Retaining her lead role in York Shakespeare Project’s Macbeth, delayed by the pandemic until October 2021

SOMETHING wicked this way comes…at last.

The curse of “the Scottish Play” had struck again – in the form of a global pandemic, no less – to stop York Shakespeare Project’s penultimate production, Macbeth, only days before its opening night on March 30 2020 at Theatre @41, Monkgate.

Fifteen months later, however, committee member Tony Froud can confirm this morning: “Hot on the heels of announcing our reboot of our ever-popular Sonnet Walks for this summer’s Sonnets At The Bar, we are very pleased to confirm that our production of Macbeth is returning, with Leo Doulton continuing as director. Rehearsals will start in September for performances in the week commencing October 25.”

Rather than Lady Macbeth in her end-of-days fevers, the constant hand washing, over and over again, has been bestowed on the rest of us in these Hands-Face-Space times of Macbeth’s mothballing.

At the time of the postponement, Tony had said with the foresight of one of Macbeth’s Witches: “The ideal solution would be to pick it up again with the same company of actors later in the year, but there could yet be complications.”

How right he was. “After 15 months, circumstances have changed and sadly some actors are no longer available. However, this means there’s an opportunity for new actors to join the company,” says Tony, who will still play Ross in Shakespeare’s dark tale of ambition, murder and supernatural forces.

“Many of the original cast will be continuing in the roles they had already worked hard bringing to life, but some roles, including Lady Macbeth, are open for audition.”

Director Leo Doulton: Setting his production of Macbeth in a dystopian “cyberpunk” future, to be performed in a promenade style

These roles are: Lady Macbeth, Duncan, Lennox, Lady Macduff and Third Witch/Third Murderer/Caithness/Seyton.

“The first round of auditions will be held over Zoom on the evenings of Thursday, June 17 and Friday, June 18 and during the day on Saturday, June 19, taking no more than ten minutes,” says Tony. 

“A small number of applicants will then be called back for in-person auditions on Saturday, June 26 and Sunday, June 27.”

Actors interested in auditioning should contact yorkshakespeareproject@gmail.com with their availability on the above dates, indicating which role or roles they are interested in.

Emma Scott will still lead the cast in the title role in Doulton’s “cyberpunk”Macbeth; Clive Lyons will play Banquo/Siward; Rhiannon Griffiths, Fleance/Donalbain/Son/Young Siward; Harry Summers, MacDuff; Eleanor Frampton, Malcolm; Sarah-Jane Strong, Angus; Joy Warner, First Witch/First Murderer/Doctor, and Alexandra Logan, Second Witch/Second Murderer/Gentlewoman.

Amanda Dales (Lady Macbeth); Jim Paterson (Duncan, Lady Macduff, Menteith), Nick Jones (Lennox) and Chloe Payne (Third Witch, Third Murderer, Caithness, Seyton) are unavailable for this autumn’s run, hence this month’s auditions.

Out! Spot now available. The role of Lady Macbeth is up for grabs in York Shakespeare Project’s pandemic-delayed Macbeth after Amanda Dales left York for pastures new in Cambridge

Although Macbeth is play number 29 in Shakespeare’s chronology of 38 plays, YSP had held back the Bard’s tragedy big hitter until production number 36 of 37 as part of a grand finale to the 20-year project planned for 2020, with The Tempest as the final curtain last autumn.

Alas, theatre’s harbinger of bad luck and its Weird Sisters then delivered double, double toil and trouble to YSP. “We were six rehearsals short of the finishing line, when the Coronavirus lockdown was imposed.” says Tony.

When Macbeth and we hopefully more than three shall meet again, we shall encounter a Leo Doulton production set in a dystopian “cyberpunk” future and performed in a promenade style, with the action taking place on the move, around the audience.

“Macbeth is a magnificent tragedy about the earthly struggle between the forces of order and chaos, and how the world becomes corrupted by Macbeth’s strange bargains,” says Leo, who made his YSP directorial debut at the helm of October 2019’s stripped-back Antony And Cleopatra.

“Cyberpunk is an exciting genre for exploring, highlighting and visualising those ideas for a modern audience. We no longer fear witches, but we are still scared of our society being shaped by powers with no concern for those below them.”

The date for The Tempest to conclude YSP’s Shakespeare cycle is yet to be put in Prospero’s book, but the final production is more than likely to be accompanied by an exhibition charting YSP from 2001 formation to stormy finale. “The York Explore library is expressing an interest in presenting it, ideally to coincide with The Tempest’s run,” said Tony in March last year.

The HandleBards ride roughshod over Romeo & Juliet as tragedy turns to comedy in York Theatre Royal’s Love Season

“Kissing by the book” for pandemic masked ball times in The HandleBards’ unhinged and bonkers re-cycling of Romeo & Juliet for The Love Season at York Theatre Royal

IN the exhortative words of the late Freddie Mercury, “Get on your bikes and ride”.

Eco-friendly, perma-cycling Shakespearean travelling theatre company The HandleBards will be heading to  York Theatre Royal on May 25 and 26.

Directed by Nel Crouch, company founders Paul Moss and Tom Dixon and partner in chaotic irreverence Lucy Green have created an “unhinged and bonkers” version of Romeo & Juliet, the pulp fiction, early Sixties’ girl-group teenage tragedy of the Shakespeare canon.

“Forget the tears and tragedy, and get ready for some live and wired Shakespeare as you’ve never seen it before,” they advise after fashioning a show replete with music, mayhem and a pile-up of costume changes under the influence of cabin fever when cooped up together in lockdown.

“It was pure fortitude that the three of us were living together,” says Paul. “We ended up living in a three-bedroom house in Crystal Palace for the whole of lockdown, and we just opened a bottle of wine and started rehearsing.”

Crouch had adapted Romeo & Juliet originally as an all-female four-hander in 2016 that then toured internationally to Singapore, Malaysia, India and Myanmar in 2017 and 2018, when Lucy slipped into various roles.

“I’d even played Juliet and the Nurse when needed, and Tom had been an emergency understudy too, so we all knew the show really well, and we decided to adapt it as a three-hander for when we could tour outdoors [in a social bubble] last year,” says Paul.

“We rehearsed it in our living room and a rehearsal room, and then we managed to tour it throughout July, August and September, and we ended up doing about 50 shows, so it was pretty extensive. We then started talking to theatres about doing a tour in March and April, but of course that all got cancelled, though we’ve managed to move a lot of the tour dates to September and October.”

O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo? Lucy Green’s Juliet giving out distress signals in The HandleBards’ Romeo & Juliet

The HandleBards have toured York since four fearless friends, Moss, Dixon, Callum Cheatle and Callum Brodie pedalled Twelfth Night to 20 venues in 2013. “In our first days, I drew up a map of beautiful places we could go to, and of course York was on there,” recalls Paul.

“Someone suggested Merchant Adventurers’ Hall [in Fossgate], and we made contact with Lauren Marshall [hall manager and audience development officer]. We didn’t realise there was an outdoor performance space there, but that’s where we played and then camped by the river that night! The shows became so popular that we had to move them inside the hall.”

York missed out on the Romeo & Juliet tour in 2020, but Paul’s past association with Theatre Royal chief executive Tom Bird in their days at Shakespeare’s Globe has brought about next week’s stand-alone performances.

“Tom used to be executive producer at the Globe, and I was among the first Candlelighters in the Sam Wanamaker indoor theatre [where plays are lit by candlelight]. Tom and I have kept in touch to help each other out, and when he was interested in putting on shows outdoors at the Theatre Royal, we spoke, but instead we’re now doing the Love Season indoors.”

Usually, The HandleBards travel by cycle on their tours. “But for Romeo & Juliet, we’ve toured by van with a stage for socially distanced performances, and we’ll be taking the train to York,” says Paul.

Looking ahead, he adds: “For our upcoming all-female, comical Macbeth tour, our stage will now fit into an electric van, to go with the cycles, to give us carbon neutrality. If the show doesn’t make it to York this summer, it definitely will next year.

“Lucy, meanwhile, is going into rehearsals for Nel Crouch’s new version of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance Of Being Earnest: not Shakespeare and probably not cycling, for my new company, Slapstick Picnic, where basically the company premises will be wherever I have my laptop! Only two actors will be doing the entire show: Lucy and Bill Ross-Fawcett.”

Should anyone be a newcomer to The HandleBards, what should they expect from Romeo & Juliet? “Unbridled joy!” says Paul. “There are so many parts to our shows, always changing costumes, playing different roles, always having a good time. Romeo & Juliet may be one of the world’s great tragedies, but we’re here to entertain, so if there are tears, they will be tears of joy.

Wherefore art I? Cast thine eye hither, O Juliet. Paul Moss’s Romeo pulls a face of exasperation in The HandleBards’ Romeo & Juliet

“Shakespeare’s plays are there to entertain and we’re just here to tell good stories. The interesting thing about Shakespeare’s tragedies is that there’s so much humour and comedy in them! 

“Until Mercutio bites the dust, there’s very little tragedy in it. It’s a comedy till then, and people forget that, trying to make it so dark. You can play it that way, but it’s a family comedy in the first half. Even if the plays are tragedies, we approach them first with the aim of finding the comedy within the tragedy.

“There’s very little violence in Romeo & Juliet until it’s self-inflicted, so it’s all revolving around a ‘thumb bite’ up to that point!”

Reflecting on the spoke in the wheel of Lockdown x 3, applied to both The HandleBards and theatre, Paul says: “We’ve been some of the luckiest people in our industry, being able to tour last year and getting back up on our feet so quickly this spring.

“The Arts Council has been so supportive to theatres, but when things start opening up again and the furloughs drop out, I think we’ll see holes where people who are freelance haven’t been able to survive . I fear there’ll be a definite impact on theatre over the next two years.”

The Love Season presents The HandleBards’ Romeo & Juliet, York Theatre Royal, May 25, 8pm; May 26, 3pm and 8pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk. YTR is complying with government and industry Covid-19, social-distancing guidelines to ensure safety of staff and audiences.

Riding ruff-shod: The HandleBards’ Paul Moss, left, Lucy Green and Tom Dixon transforming Shakespeare’s tragic teen romance into a chaotic comedy under the influence of lockdown cabin fever

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