This seems to be the week of controversial theatres. It was only last month that the Courtyard Theatre was getting dragged across The Stage for late payment of artists and “unclean working conditions.” There was mention of mice, but I think you’d be hard pushed to find a theatre in London without them. At one of the theatres I worked at, we could feel the mice running across our feet all day while sitting at our desks. And that wasn’t some crummy arts centre or dodgy fringe venue. Quite the opposite. It was a rather fancy producing house. The type that has West End transfers on the reg. So, you know, not sure complaining about mice should really be a thing. Late payment though… yeah, that sucks.
Anyway, it’s a return visit for me. Done the Main House already, and now it’s time to tackle the Studio. And let me tell you, it wasn’t easy. I’ve been checking the website every week since January, looking for a show in this space. For months, there was nothing. Just the odd music gig, which doesn’t count. But finally, finally, I got one. A play. In the studio. On for one night only, but no matter. I switched my plans around and got myself booked in.
The fact that it’s Shakespeare. And even worse, Macbeth, hardly seemed worth worrying about.
Inside, down the green stairwell, and I'm thinking that not much has changed since my last visit other than a switch up in the posters stuck to the wall, but no... I was wrong. I turn the corner and stop. I can't go any further because there's a queue taking up the last few steps. A queue leading to the box office. The proper hole in the wall one. Not just some front of houser with a clipboard.
We shuffle our way down the steps as we get checked in.
"It's a company ticket?" says the girl in front of me as the box officer tries to find her name. "My friend organised it."
"Ah!" He switches to a different list. Nods as he finds her, and hands her a freesheet.
She immediately opens it and turns it upside down. "Oh wow! He's actually in it!" she exclaims, before heading off to the bar with a big grin on her face.
They're clearly very close.
"Is it company tickets or did you buy them online?" asks the box officer when I give me name.
"I actually bought a ticket," I say, with the same tone you'd use when admitting the designer gear you're sporting is fake. "With money," I add, just for added clarification, that yes, it's from a dodgy market stall and definetly made by child labour.
"You bought a ticket?" he says surprised, switching from the handwritten list to the printed one. "Great! Can you remind me of the name."
I spell it out for him again. "S. M. I. L. E. S."
"Smiles," he says, finding it on the list and drawing a line through it. "There you go." He hands me a freesheet.
It's rather handsome. Black cover. A red sword-tree hybrid thing going on. And the title, in a pseudo-Mackintosh font (Charles Rennie rather than Cameron) that shouldn't work, but kinda does. Must be some deep underlying Scottish aesthetic connection.
I don't actually know where the studio theatre is in this place, but I do know where the bar is, so I go there. This place is a warren of corridors and stairwells. The type of place where you have to be lead about by a front of houser, who have all presumably spent decades training so that they know the different routes. Ushers at the Courtyard are the sherpas of the theatre world.
It's pretty busy in here. This surprises me. Somehow I didn't have a fringe Macbeth performed in a studio space for one night only being much of a hot ticket, but look at all these people, drinking and laughing and... reading their freesheets upside down.
Hang on. That's weird. Even for Shakespeare audiences.
I get out my own freesheet.
And immediately turn it around the other way.
Ah, I see the problem. They forgot to switch the printer options to flip on the short edge rather than the default long edge. An easy to make mistake. Which is why you must always do a test print when making folded freesheets.
But, you know, apart from the printing snafu, they're alright. They even have a spoiler section in the synopsis, which is frickin' adorable on a four hundred year old play if you ask me.
Plus, a two hour run time. Which suits me just fine because I am so tired everything is starting to look a bit fuzzy around the edges.
More people are coming in and there's lots of kissing and hugging as they all recognise one another. I try to get a photo of the bookshelf wallpaper that covers one side of the bar, but there are too many people in the way.
"Do you know someone in the show?" a woman asks a guy she just got talking to.
"No, we just thought we'd check it out," comes the reply.
She nods slowly and stares into her drink. "Niceee," she says before quickly walking away.
"Ladies and gentleman," calls a voice from the doorway. "The house for Macbeth is now open. If you'd like to make your way through the door here."
I sling my bag up over my shoulder, ready for the long trek through the building, but the front of houser has only taken a few steps into the corridor and is now holding a door open that leads to the room right behind the bookshelf wall.
It's dark in here. Really dark. And filled with haze.
I'm vaguely away of a railing on one side of my, leading me around the back of the room and down a ramp.
At the bottom of the ramp I blink into the glare of a spotlight and try to make sense of the space. There's a wooden floor. A low ceiling. The walls are black. A single rows of chairs on each side, and multiple rows at each end.
I'm not sitting on the sides. That's all front row, and while Macbeth isn't usually interactive, you can never trust studio-based Shakespeares to stick to the script.
I'm going to the far end. Second row. The third row is up on a platform. A really high platform. I think it might actually be the stage. Which is taking the rake a bit too far if you ask me.
Anyway, from my second-row seat, I can see straight through the door that leads backstage, and I keep on getting glimpses of tartan, which is rather pleasing. And what looks like a tin bath full of bricks.
It is warm though. Very warm. We are basically in an underground heat trap. The low ceiling and intense spotlight aren't helping.
Everyone starts wafting themselves with their freesheets.
I dig around in my bag and pull out my fan. Two hours down here is going to be a bit of a challenge.
More people come in, shading their eyes against that intense light.
The seats are filling up.
A group of women walk down towards my end of the room and examine the stage situation. They can't work out how to get up there. One brave soul slings her bag onto the stage, and then using her knee to heave herself after it, crawls her way up with a grunt.
The things we do for theatre.
The seats are all full now. Well, not quite. There's a few strategically placed reserved signs dotted around. A girl comes over and looks at the one in the row in front of me. And then looks around elsewhere. There's nowhere left for her to go.
Using a well of logic that I've never had access to, she slips behind me and sits herself down on the edge of the stage.
Right then. We're ready to begin.
Macbeth. Act one.
You'd think this would be the perfect Shakespeare for me. What with the dark themes and murder and intrigue and strong women and daggers and tartan and misty backdrop. But no, I think it's super dull. And while I'm not hating this production, the source material ain't doing anything for me.
Also, I'm noticing a strange smell. Musty. And damp. Like a swimsuit that's been shoved inside a suitcase at the end of the holiday and never unpacked.
Is this part of the design? An olfactory layer to the play? I have another sniff. It's not there all the time, but it comes in strong waves whenever one of the actors wearing tartan appears. Oof. Poor them. That must be really unpleasant to be wearing. Like having a wet dog deciding they want to sleep on your lap all evening. Petrichor, but like... gross.
As the story moves to the feast, actors filled the reserved seats so that we are all sitting around the table, staring Macbeth freaks out at the sight of Banquo and his gory locks.
As soon as the actors clear the stage for the interval, I bolt back up the ramp, through the bar, up the green staircase and outside.
It's still really warm out here, but I lean against the outside wall in bliss, enjoying what little breeze there is.
Soon I'm joined by all the smokers in the audience and from their chatter it becomes very clear what type of people I'm spending the evening with.
"My mum directed him in a play."
"Yeah, so I got accepted into that playwrighting scheme."
"Are you taking it to Edinburgh this year?"
"We did a show together at university."
One of the front of housers comes around the corner holding a carrier bag, looking for all the world like he just popped into the corner shop during the interval. "Anyone for Macbeth, the show will be starting again in a few minutes," he says as he wanders back through the doors.
We all follow him.
The theatre is almost empty. Everyone is still up in the bar.
There's some stormy, drumming, atmospheric song filling the space, which my phone assures me is Helvegen by Wardruna.
One of the actors appears and starts removing the reserved signs from the seats. We're done with that part of theatricality.
A bell rings. A proper theatre bell. And soon the audience begins to make it's way back down from the bar.
And we're back. This time with swords. And I'm betting they came from the same place they got the tartan because those fuckers look heavy.
As the blades clash, a woman in my row jumps, her feet creeping up onto her seat as she hugs her knees and leans back as far the fuck away from the stage as she can least she get stuck by a flying weapon.
The three witches take up spots in the corner of the room, breathing through open mouths, almost growling like dogs as they weave their spell around the characters, leading off the dead to have their wicked ways with the entrails offstage.
And then it's over. And I can go the fuck home.
I hurry out, aiming for Old Street station. Straight up the Northern Line and home by 10, that's the plan.
I get out my phone to check the time. 10.15pm. Ten-fucking-fifteen.
But to be fair, it's my fault.
You should never trust a Shakespeare play that claims to be only two hours.