Imagine Macbeth where the characters are not kings and high nobility in mid-11th century Scotland but bourgeois in late 16th century London. A good but ambitious man is inveigled to his destruction, both moral and physical, through female malignity. For most of us, George Lillo’s 1731 City tragedy is a mere reference in the theatre history books, though it held the stage both in London and on the Norwich Circuit for a full century after the Drury Lane première.
Now it has been revived as part of the Theatre Royal’s Restoring the Repertoire programme in an audaciously in-the-round production by Colin Blumenau which brings the acting area up to dress circle box level and sets half the audience in tiers on what is usually the stage. This close up, the acting needs to be even more than usually convincing, as do the visual elements of the production. Kit Surrey’s magnificent late Elizabethan costumes look like real clothes worn by real people.
All but two characters wear black, though the texture of the different fabrics stops the effect being monochrome. Anna Hope as the courtesan Millwood shimmers in silver lame as she layers the putrescence of her greed upon the besotted young apprentice George Barnwell. Hope looks magnificent but seemed overcome by a bad attack of the mumbles on opening night, so much of her major speeches explaining why she acts as she does went for nothing. Katie Bonna as her maid Lucy who, too late, tries to undo the evil is as crisp as her copper-coloured dress.
Lessons in how to articulate with conviction in this sort of staging come from David Peart as the wealthy merchant Thorowgood; Nicholas Tizzard as Millwood’s servant Blunt, Barnwell’s uncle (whose murder tiggers the inevitable tragedy) and the prison jailer; Sophia Linden as Thorowgood’s daughter Maria (who’s secretly in love with Barnwell) and Chris MacDonald as the virtuous apprentice Trueman.
It is, of course, a morality play paralleling Hogarth’s pictorial sequence of the good and the idle apprentices. But – played with passionate conviction and immense style as here – the audience becomes involved in the drama and what could be two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs flesh themselves into real people caught up in personal tragedy. Admittedly, this is one of their own making, both by omission and through deliberate actions, but it still excites our compassion. And our understanding.