The Covid-19 pandemic has plunged theatres into a crisis of closures and cancellations that harks back to Shakespeare’s day. When London’s playhouses were forced to shut more than 400 years ago during the bubonic plague, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men – the company of actors for whom Shakespeare wrote – left the capital to tour the provinces. Macbeth was probably written during the 1606 epidemic and carries its own plague imagery.
This summer, the “Scottish play” is being staged by the all-male troupe named after Shakespeare’s company, who perform his plays with Elizabethan costumes, music and dance. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men was founded by Mark Puddle in 2004 as an outdoor theatre venture. Today it is run by the director Peter Stickney, who first worked with the company as an actor in 2007.
It is a lean, hands-on operation: the actors assemble their own set before each of their performances, which are often staged in the shadow of historic castles, cathedrals or abbeys. “There’s no fancy office in Covent Garden,” says Stickney. “There’s not 20 admin staff!” The company is financially leveraged against his house, which he admits “sharpens your sense about things”.
The company has weathered substantial difficulties in the past – when their van was stolen two years running, they had to rebuild their sets at the last minute. But the perilous impact of Covid-19 led them to cancel last summer’s tour and rethink how they could go on the road this year, which they have managed with support from Arts Council England’s Culture Recovery Fund.
The company chose to form a bubble for several months and, after a week of rehearsing online, came together to rehearse their new production at a basecamp amid the woodland of Stanley Hall, a moated Elizabethan manor house. It meant the seven actors would not have to socially distance and could continue to tour around the country in their van, but it also meant they would be unable to visit their homes. This company of actors have been very much in each other’s company.
The Lord Chamberlain’s Men usually strive to keep productions to what Shakespeare called in Romeo and Juliet “two hours’ traffic” of stage time. Their Macbeth is performed without an interval to avoid mingling with the audience and the potential spread of the virus. “Macbeth, 90 minutes straight through, is really exciting,” says Strickney. “It works brilliantly that way.”
The Macbeth tour started at Salisbury Cathedral at the beginning of June with an audience of 450 gente. Audiences typically bring their own seating, which means social distancing can be flexibly arranged at each performance. The productions are stripped-back, with a simple set. But “simplicity is really brave” says Strickney. “There’s nowhere to hide. People put on loads of lights and whistles and bells and all sorts of stuff because it hides you.”
The Macbeth road trip is “a mad, mad adventure”, says Strickney, who estimates they will cover more than 12,000 miles on the 15-week tour, visiting more than 60 venues. Típicamente, they will arrive to set up a show during the day; the theatre will be built by 7pm and before midnight it will most likely be dismantled. The troupe moves on, leaving behind a field full of memories.
We spoke to the actors about their experiences.