Macbeth had big shoes to fill as he walked onstage fresh from the battlefields, clutching the Thane of Cawdor’s head, to wreak havoc amongst the Scottish nobility.
Not least because it was the opening night of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy at the brand new Rose Theatre at Blenheim Palace.
Refashioned from the Rose Theatre’s original 1587 plans, the huge structure took three weeks to install in the Woodstock palace’s grounds, resulting in a 560 seater, and 900 strong audience, in-the-round.
Tried and tested in York last year, the experience comes complete with a surrounding Shakespearean village (see our interview with local caterers Oxford Fine Dining), so a massive undertaking for Blenheim Palace, both financially and logistically.
With four plays to choose from (Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo & Juliet and Richard III) running day and night until September, the pressure is on for the two teams of actors brought in to make it work.
So yes, there was more than usurping on Macbeth’s mind when his opening lines filled the huge wooden structure, the audience divided into the standing area (cheap seats) and tiers of metal benches surrounding the stage.
With two hugely popular versions of Macbeth seen at both Stratford and The National last year, this Scottish play had much to live up to.
Volume was therefore everything, but more than that, how would artistic director Damian Cruden fashion it? Old school to complement the Elizabethan setting, or a more modern take as has been the want recently (at the National the soldiers had their own rave)?
Old school as it turned out and as bloody, brutal and macabre as expected.
Macduff stole the show, his loyalty, grief and warmongering were larger-than-life and mesmerising to behold.
The basic wooden set encapsulated the embittered, isolated Scottish court, the players roaming among the standing audience.
That aside, the gore, revenge, murder, ruinous ambition, madness, war and depravity continued unabated; heads on spikes, decapitations commonplace, infanticide the norm.
Were there any surprises? Only the witches veered from the expected path, depicted as servants trying to distract Macbeth, yet whose visions were still prophetic enough to come true. Considering the number of school children there, it was misleading and unnecessary, although their animal skull costumes were riveting to behold.
Was Alex Avery up to the task as Macbeth?
He did a stellar job, perhaps lacking only the twisted complexity required by such a doomed and multi-faceted character.
His beautiful young wife Lady Macbeth, admirably played by Suzy Cooper, was brilliant, but it was Macduff that stole the show. Played by Paul Hawkyard, a huge bear of a man, his loyalty, grief and warmongering were larger-than-life and mesmerising to behold.
I look forward to his appearance as Bottom in Midsummer Night’s Dream with increased trepidation.
Both Macbeth and the Rose Theatre’s offerings (more reviews to follow) were a spectacle not to be missed.
This is an opportunity to see Shakespeare as it was intended, in a truly unique environment, right on our very doorstep.
Don’t miss your opportunity to be there.
Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre runs at Blenheim Palace until Sept 7.
Tickets at blenheimpalace.com