Friday, January 24, 2020

Review: 'Macbeth' at Wilton's Music Hall, 23rd January 2020

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

Ten minutes into The Watermill Ensemble's Macbeth a member of the cast dislocated both knees and the play was stopped. I don't believe in curses, but... I mean, pretty spooky right?

Director Paul Hart appeared on stage to explain that ordinarily they'd have cancelled tonight's show. However, it just so happened that a former cast member, Emma Barclay, was in the audience. She stepped in at a moment's notice to play Lady MacDuff and though we were warned that tonight's show might be a bit rough around the edges, everything went off smoothly. So well done to her.

After a restart and a delay of about an hour, we get our teeth into the company's unique take on Macbeth. Though the plot sticks closely to the book, the setting is an urban contemporary warzone. The backdrop is a crumbling hotel, the characters dress in combat gear and have vicious knife fights. There are frequent live musical interstitials within scenes, with characters singing songs by The Rolling Stones, The XX and the Nine Inch Nails.

As is usual with these sorts of Shakespearian adaptations, the medieval language of Thanes, Kings and castles don't perfectly tesselate with the setting. However, it's easy on the eye, the costumes make the cast look cool and there's a sexy revolutionary chic to the whole thing. As usual, it's best to just go with it.

Billy Postlethwaite's Macbeth is easily the show's most striking feature, whose beard, straggly hair and beret give him a Che Guevara vibe. Postlethwaite is a hell of an actor, looming over the other cast members and with a combat veteran's build. His Macbeth is both regal and deadly: a man for whom you can believe murder is a viable way to solve a problem.

But a good Macbeth is nothing without his Lady Macbeth, and Emma Mcdonald is more than a match for her co-star. Dressed in form-fitting outfits, she slinks around the stage like a big cat pacing its cage in the zoo. The love and lust between the couple is palpable. They sinuously wrap themselves around one another, their intertwining limbs showing off their physical intimacy.

They're a great double-act and whenever they're on stage the show fizzes. And when they're not?

Well, there's a notable dull patch in the second half of the show when we head away from Cawdor and get into the murder of the Macduff family and the raising of an army against Macbeth. It's not that the performances are lacking, more this action pales into comparison with the psychosexual guilt of the Macbeths. Plus, while I'm familiar with Macbeth and Lady Macbeth's dialogue, I don't know this part of the play so well, and the acoustics in the room aren't great for clarity.

I also don't the musical interludes add a great deal to the play. Pausing the narrative to sing a couple of bars of a rock or pop song feels like they don't have confidence in the play to sustain the audience's attention. On top of that, it's a stretch to figure out what relevance the songs' lyrics have to the show. 

As an aside, this take on Macbeth doesn't even properly feature the Three Witches, one of my favourite bits of the play. Here they're played by the ensemble as more of a force of nature, but having this many characters inhabit them dilutes their power.

It leaves an uneven show that pulls in a couple of different directions at once. Billy Postlethwaite and Emma Mcdonald are worth the price of admission alone, but I wish the rest of it was a bit more focused.

Macbeth is at Wilton's Music Hall in a double bill with A Midsummer Night's Dream until 15th February. Tickets here.

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