MACBETH (2016) by Arrows & Traps Theatre Company
Directed by Ross McGregor
To those that haven’t read, seen or even thought about the bard since high school, Macbeth is the one with the witches. This trio equally frighten and entice the titular general, with a prophecy of his eventual ascension to the throne. Prompted by pushes from his infamous wife, much toil and trouble follows in his campaign for power. Along the way the play explores how duel forces of ambition and guilt can beset a man who lacks the necessary strength of character. Director Ross McGregor gives the old tale a stripped back steampunk look, modern tunes and gender reverses many of the key roles. Yet whilst this may be the sort of show to make your old English teacher weep, it better gets to the spirit of the play than many straight retellings will. More importantly, the drama is gripping throughout, meaning it’s not a retelling that will simply be appreciated, as much as actively enjoyed.
The stage is sparse, consisting of a couple of tables with 6 chairs, though the scenic austerity is countered with some frankly beautiful choreography and nasty effects. The opening scene takes us straight into the gore of the battlefield: there’s swords swung, blood banded around and a real sense of unrest. Enter the witches. Kitted out like a 1980s cyber pop trio, they take on a menacing form far from the pointy hats and cackles audiences may have come to expect. This fresh aesthetic runs through ‘til the end, building to a genuinely stunning fog-filled crescendo as the ghosts of the past enter the present war in a mix of outright menace and interpretive dance. It’s not dissimilar to an onstage montage sequence and works excellently. There’s also moments of genuine horror getting there, with red faced apparitions appearing as demonic whispers supply an ambiance. These bits are not far removed from the beats of some of the classic Japanese horrors from the early 00s, and very eerie. It gets dark – very dark – and far removed from the milk of human kindness. The soundtrack is also fitting, encompassing classical and contemporary influences that perfectly fit the timeless, otherworldly atmosphere summoned by the costumes and minimalist set.
The visual and audio flair is complemented by a strong cast. Leading man Paisley delivers a powerhouse of a performance, portraying his character with a mixture of statesman-like nobility and a crushing sense of insecurity. The result is something like Gordon Brown with PTSD, as he quivers and weeps between fierce scraps. Leading him into battle is an unusually human Lady Macbeth (Baumann), who more than meets his performance. Together they give the narrative something of a tender love story, that’s all too easily missed in a less careful production. Their reunion scene is passionate, bordering on animalistic. And whilst her later prompts for blood may come from a selfish place they nonetheless resemble the supporting talks that real partners may have in the dead of night. Consequently, the tragic third act carries more emotional weight than may be remembered. Importantly, both actors are able to speak the obviously archaic lines in a naturalistic way, rather than indulging in the couplets and meter that plague lesser enactments. This means that whilst you may not understand what every line says, you will understand what it ultimately means.
As backslapping as it sounds, a notable weakness is that in a play with such strong leads, it feels like many other cast members don’t get their time to shine. When the two Macbeths aren’t onstage, they cast such a strong shadow that it’s hard not to spend much of the second half awaiting their return. It’s not that the others are bad: Apps plays Duncan with a believable dignity and Black oozes charisma as Banquo. It’s just their roles are less well defined, and subsequently some of them fail to make an impact. In particular, the gang of hired killers never come across as particularly dangerous nor funny. In saying this, all show great physical timing during a party sequence, that sees the revellers start and stop between quaffs and guffaw, so this seems like more a case of underuse than a lack of skill. There’s also some unnecessary slowdown throughout, with the worst example being a song sequence that’s fun but adds relatively little to proceedings. But then these are minor quibbles for a show that gives such an energetic take on such an old play. When the lights go up, what’s done is done. And done very darn well. So go along to Wimbledon, and remind yourself why these centuries later all kids are forced to read this sort of thing.
Macbeth is being performed at the New Wimbledon Studio until 9th July 2016.