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Something wicked this way comes: the Lord Chamberlain’s Men on tour – photo essay

The Guardian - Thu Jul 22 06:00

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.

The cast at rest at the Stanley Hall base camp in Essex (just before a group meeting to discuss the day’s rehearsals).
  • Cast members listen to director Peter Stickney’s notes, after the first full dress rehearsal of Macbeth at their Stanley Hall basecamp.

Harry Clarke (centre) waits for his cue backstage, during a dress rehearsal at Stanley Hall
  • Harry Clarke (centre) waits for his cue backstage, during a dress rehearsal at Stanley Hall

(From left) Harry Clarke (Ross, Seyton), Samuel Lane (Banquo, Mentieth, Gentleman, Siward), Ronnie Yorke (Macbeth, Sergeant) and Rhys Warrington (Lady Macbeth, Third Weird Sister, Young Siward) cook dinner together at their Stanley Hall base camp in Essex.
Michael Faulkner (Malcolm) takes a rest at the end of a day’s rehearsals.
  • (From left) Harry Clarke (Ross, Seyton), Samuel Lane (Banquo, Mentieth, Gentleman, Siward), Ronnie Yorke (Macbeth, Sergeant) and Rhys Warrington (Lady Macbeth, Third Weird Sister, Youlng Siward) cook dinner together at Stanley Hall. Right: Michael Faulkner (Malcolm) takes a rest at the end of a day’s rehearsals.

Ronnie Yorke (Macbeth, Sergeant) during rehearsals at the Stanley Hall base camp in Essex.
Harry Clarke (Ross, Seyton) centre, and Laurie Scott (Duncan, Porter, Lennox, Doctor) put on their tights in the cosutme gazebo set up behind the stage.
  • Ronnie Yorke (Macbeth, Sergeant) during rehearsals at Stanley Hall. Right: Harry Clarke and Laurie Scott get into their tights. The actors use a single 3x3m gazebo placed out of view of the audience for all backstage operations.

Actors huddle before beginning a costumed run-through during rehearsals at the Stanley Hall base camp in Essex
  • The cast huddle before each performance.

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.

Director Peter Stickney talks to the cast backstage during rehearsals at the Stanley Hall base camp in Essex.
  • Director Peter Stickney talks to the cast backstage during rehearsals at Stanley Hall.

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 first in-situ performance, at Salisbury Cathedral, is a final dress rehearsal. The company play here for two nights at the beginning of the tour. Most of the rest of the tour dates are one night only.
  • The first in-situ performance, at Salisbury Cathedral, is a final dress rehearsal. The company play here for two nights at the beginning of the tour. Most of the rest of the tour dates are one night only.

Rehearsing at Salisbury Cathedral where the first performance of the tour will be held the following evening.
  • The three Weird Sisters (left to right: Rhys Warrington, Maximilian Marston and Michael Faulkner) who prophesy the fates of Macbeth and Banquo and intone the famous line “double, double toil and trouble”.

Laurie Scott (as Duncan) helps Michael Faulkner (as Malcolm) button up his coat. Each actor plays between two and four characters and costume changes must be be ready to come on to stage at the right moment.
  • Laurie Scott (as Duncan) helps Michael Faulkner (as Malcolm) button up his coat. Each actor plays between two and four characters and costume changes must be timed to perfection to make sure actors are ready to come on to stage at the right moment.

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 ‘Get-in’ at Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset. Each day the actors arrive at their new venue at 1pm and spend roughly 2 hours setting up the entire stage and backstage area.
  • The ‘get-in’ at Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset. Each day the actors arrive at their new venue at 1pm and spend roughly two hours setting up the entire stage and backstage area.

Getting the stage, props and costumes to the performance area can sometimes be quite a challenge at some of the more ancient locations.
The entire production and actors belongings fit inside a single van
  • Getting the stage, props and costumes to the performance area can sometimes be quite a challenge at some of the more ancient locations. The entire production and actors’ belongings fit inside a single van.

The company arrive, set-up and perform at Glastonbury Abbey, Glastonbury, Somerset
  • Downward-facing dog in front of the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey.

Setting up stage at Hever Castle in Kent, the childhood home of Anne Boleyn. Once trained the actors are virtually self-sufficient for the entire tour, able to transport themselves to venues, set-up stage, perform to audience and strike set. Production Manager Aaron Barker travels along with the company to assist the daily processes.
  • Setting up stage at Hever Castle in Kent, the childhood home of Anne Boleyn. Once trained, the actors are virtually self-sufficient for the entire tour, able to transport themselves to venues, set up the stage, perform and then “strike” the set. Production manager Aaron Barker travels with the company to assist the daily processes.

The early part of this year’s tour was punctuated by the delayed Euro 2020 football Championship. Most of the games coincided with performances but the actors were able to watch England vs Croatia in-between setting up and performing at Hever Castle in Kent.
The Euro 2020 England vs Scotland match kicked off at 8pm, one hour into the performance at King’s, Ely. Harry Clarke checks the score backstage, in-between appearances.
  • The early part of this year’s tour was punctuated by the delayed Euro 2020 football championship. Most of the games coincided with performances but the actors were able to watch England v Croatia in between setting up and performing at Hever Castle. Right: The England v Scotland match kicked off at 8pm, one hour into the performance at King’s, Ely. Harry Clarke checks the score backstage, in between appearances.

Ronnie Yorke (Macbeth) and Maximillian Marston (Macduff) practice their climactic swordfight, before audiences are admitted for the evening. Production Manager Aaron Barker draws guidelines at every venue, to ensure that audience members are able to seat themselves one metre apart from each other, for Covid-safe social distancing.
  • Ronnie Yorke (Macbeth) and Maximilian Marston (Macduff) practise their climactic swordfight, before audiences are admitted for the evening. Production manager Aaron Barker draws guidelines at every venue, to ensure that audience members are able to observe social distancing.

Setting up stage at Glastonbury Abbey.
  • Setting up stage at Glastonbury Abbey.

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.

Maximllian Marston as a Weird Sister gives a quick thumbs-up backstage
Ronnie Yorke vapes at Stanley Hall basecamp.
  • Maximilian Marston as a Weird Sister gives a quick thumbs-up backstage. Ronnie Yorke vapes at Stanley Hall basecamp.

Samuel Lane gets into costume as Apparition Three backstage at King’s Ely
Ronnie York works his make-up backstage. All the actors are responsible for their own make-up, using a small mirror backstage for applications, touch-ups and removals.
  • Samuel Lane gets into costume as Apparition Three backstage at King’s Ely. Ronnie York checks his makeup backstage. All the actors are responsible for their own makeup, using a small mirror backstage fortouch-ups and removals.

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.”

Hazel (left) and Lindsay from Wiltshire get ready for the show at Glastonbury Abbey
  • Hazel (left) and Lindsay from Wiltshire get ready for the show at Glastonbury Abbey.

Mother and son read the programme before the show at Waddesdon Manor
Picnic chairs and blankets at Waddesdon Manor
  • Mother and son read the programme before the show at Waddesdon Manor. Right: Picnic chairs and blankets.

Performance at King’s, Ely.
  • Best seats in the house.

Audience in the evening light at King’s, Ely.
  • Evening light at King’s Ely.

The Macbeth tour started at Salisbury Cathedral at the beginning of June with an audience of 450 people. 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 stage in full flow at Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire
  • The stage in full flow at Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire.

Ronnie Yorke, bloodied and harrowed as Macbeth, at Glastonbury Abbey
Lady Macbeth
  • Ronnie Yorke, bloodied and harrowed as Macbeth, at Glastonbury Abbey. Right: Rhys Warrington as Lady Macbeth.

The production at Glastonbury Abbey, Somerset
  • The production at Glastonbury Abbey.

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. Typically, 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.

Ronnie Yorke as Macbeth against the setting sun at King’s Ely.
  • Ronnie Yorke as Macbeth against the setting sun at King’s Ely.

We spoke to the actors about their experiences.

Maximillian Marston as Second Weird Sister.
Rhys Warrington as Lady Macbeth
Ronnie Yorke as Macbeth.
Michael Faulkner as Malcolm
Laurie Scott as Porter
Harry Clarke as Ross
Samuel Lane as Banquo