Director Alexander Wright and lead actor Dominic J Allen talked war and witches with Lydia Onyett as Belt Up Theatre prepare to perform their very alternative take on a Shakespearean classic.
Dominic Allen and Alexander Wright are more than a little fatigued. In a stolen moment between intensive rehearsals, they stock up on sugar and caffeine. As opening night looms on the horizon, the only topic on their minds is Macbeth.

“This production has made us really step up our game,” Alex says. “It’s Shakespeare; it’s instantly recognisable; it’s a main house production in an important theatre with a big audience. We can’t rely on what we know, which is both terrifying and exciting.”

If the audience arrive with traditional expectations, they’ll be rather surprised. “We’ve chosen to set the play towards the end of World War One,” says Alex. “Macbeth wanders straight from the trenches into a strange, dilapidated music hall, looking for respite, solace and care. We want to make Macbeth an Everyman character. He could be any soldier at the beginning of the play. He’s not a mighty, power-hungry warrior, but his poor choices begin to change him,” Alex explains. But instead of a helping hand inside the music hall, Dominic’s Macbeth finds the three witches, who adopt the roles of all the other characters.

“The other characters act as ciphers and shadows for Macbeth,” Dominic says. “The Macduffs, for instance, represent the family life he wanted, but ultimately sacrificed for power.” If the all-male company take on every role, what becomes of Shakespeare’s most famously feisty and fierce lead female? “In other productions,” Alex explains, “Lady Macbeth would have her own emotional and psychological life. However, in this production, everything leads to or from Macbeth, and she is a type, an image that acts and reacts towards Macbeth.”

This innovative performance motif blurs ideas that are more clearly delineated in Shakespeare’s text. “In the original text, the emotional struggle Macbeth overcomes to kill a child is immense, but the physical act isn’t so difficult.” Instead, Dominic is forced to grapple with another actor physically larger than him: Macbeth’s physical and emotional struggles are conflated on stage.

Although as director, Alex is at the helm of this production, Belt Up is definitely more a democracy than a director’s dictatorship. The four members of the up-and-coming theatre company (Alex, Dominic, Jethro Compton and James Wilkes) met while studying at the University of York and bonded over their shared love of theatre. Dominic recalls, “ We went to the Fringe during our second year, with a stupidly large number of shows; Tartuffe, Volpone, Women of Troy, Romeo and Juliet – and a roaming Macbeth.”

Their first year at the Festival in 2008 garnered them a Edinburgh International Festival Fringe Award; an accolade that brought the foursome more widespread critical attention and encouraged the development of the company. “We went back to the Fringe the year after, with Tartuffe and The Trial. We got a great critical reception, and a residency with York Theatre Royal followed straight after graduation. That was fantastic, because it gave us the security we needed as well as a base where we could develop our work.” “Our residency at the Theatre Royal is wonderful,” adds Alex. “Damien Cruden, the artistic director, really encourages the company to contribute to the cultural worth of the theatre. York Theatre Royal doesn’t tend to produce the kind of immersive, promenade performances that we do, so we bring something alternative to audiences here.”

The company’s residency at the Theatre Royal gives Belt Up more than just a place to call home. Alex says, “We’ll tour Macbeth in around a year’s time, but York is such a good testing ground for our new work before we begin a full tour.” “All our work benefits from touring,” says Dominic. “The process is kind of like natural selection; the bits we forget while we tour probably weren’t that good to begin with. Our work is very fluid, and is constantly reworked and rethought – which is just as well, because we get bored very easily!”

Audiences will not simply sit back and relax during this performance – a Belt Up production means audience involvement. “It’s very important to us that an audience is never told to sit down, be quiet and passively watch. The audience are central to our performances,” Alex says. Will their first main house production render this aim a little trickier? “They’ll be asked to commit a few serial murders,” Alex quips. “But, seriously, 600 people are more difficult to involve than 50. In Macbeth, the audience are a mass force rather than individual presences. This ties in well to certain parts of the play: Birnam Wood, for instance. Macbeth is intimidated by this uncontrollable, threatening mass which, to him, represents his limitless options.”

Though they adapt, write and perform other works, the Scottish play has always held a pull over the company. “Macbeth has always been near and dear to our hearts. We’ve performed it twice before, but they were two completely different manifestations,” says Alex. “Essentially, we all enjoy the play,” Dominic adds, “and the timing is perfect. The main house will work perfectly with the music hall idea. And it’s autumn. It’s miserable, things are drawing in and darkening. It’s a perfect atmosphere for a Macbeth.”

Macbeth will premiere at York Theatre Royal on the 6 and 7 October. Tickets are available from yorktheatreroyal.co.uk. Visit Belt Up Theatre’s website at beltuptheatre.com, or follow them on Twitter at beltuptheatre.