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Review: Macbeth (Watermill Theatre)

Billy Postlethwaite stars as Macbeth in the Watermill's revival

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Billy Postlethwaite and Emma McDonald as Lord and Lady Macbeth
© Pamela Raith

Three years ago, newly arrived artistic director Paul Hart assembled a strikingly young ensemble of ten actor/musicians, five men and five women, for his first Watermill production, Romeo and Juliet. The idea was for the ensemble to reassemble regularly to reimagine Shakespeare's plays in their own developing style. He started as he meant to go on, using specially written music, casting for character rather than gender, placing the action in reimagined settings (Capulets' bar, the Elephant jazz club for Twelfth Night, a ghostly Edwardian theatre for Dream). His ensemble extends to his creative team. For their fourth collaboration, returning designer Katy Lias, movement director Tom Jackson Greaves, lighting designer Tom White and sound designer David Gregory are joined by musical director Maimuna Memon.

Most of the actor/musicians are also returners and this is reflected in the seamlessly fluid way they work together on Lias' reimagining of the Watermill's space as a sinister sleazy hotel, possibly a bordello, run by the Macbeths. With dark humour, the entry is dominated by a neon sign where O and T short out at key moments, leaving it reading H—EL. In case you don't get it, there is a number 6 on each of the three doors behind the porter's reception desk manned by Eva Feiler's long suffering multi-tasking faithful retainer.

Feiler is right to seize her chance for humour, for the atmosphere the company create together is one of unbearable mounting tension, of gathering forces of evil, all the more terrifying because there are not the usual trio of witches (many of the witches' lines are cut in a rearranged text) but unidentifiable voices and bodies, joining ghostly forces to direct and harness the Macbeths' ambition and suborn them to their collective will.

So camouflage works equally well for the warriors and spirits of both sexes here, for this is a land where women fight alongside men and where their right to inherit is a given. It makes sense that Lillie Flynn's Banquo, though not as ruthless as Macbeth, is ambitious too, eager to make something of the supernatural predictions for her line, represented by her daughter Fleance (Feiler again); and that Victoria Blunt's pragmatic Malcolm should inherit her slain father's crown with the support of her younger brother Donalbain (Peter Mooney, playing a mean bass guitar).

The Macbeths are perfectly matched just because Billy Postlethwaite's gangling, fidgety Macbeth is complemented by the contrasting stillness of Emma McDonald's glamorous, damaged Lady Macbeth. The sexual tension between them increases with the violence and their desperation and there is also a sense that Postlethwaite's thane grows into the role of man of action, outstripping his need for his Lady. Both speak the verse entirely naturally.

The ensemble's joint creativity leads to the lovely flow of moments like Lady Macbeth plucking from her husband's hand the letter revealing the fulfilment of the first prophecy with his elevation to Thane of Cawdor, as they pass each other walking up and down stage respectively.

Hart directs with a fine sense of the cinematic, cross cutting between the stark terror of Sally Cheng's fragile Lady Macduff, the graphic horror of her slaughter along with her twin babies and his young son (Max Runham's brave adolescent), and the devastation of Mike Slader's steely Macduff receiving the news. Runham meets an earlier violent end at the hands of the Macbeths as an unusually youthful Duncan. With Offue Okegbe, who brings exciting energy to the role of weathervane retainer Lennox, and Mooney, Runham is the backbone of the full cast's musical support. The entire ensemble also provides the unnerving, pulsing percussion as part of a tapestry of sounds recorded and live underscoring the action.

An inspired list of live musical numbers, classic rock, and more recent hits illuminate and intensify the drama. The Stones' "Paint it Black" intensifies Macbeth's ‘black and deep desires', "House of The Rising Sun" accompanies his drunk and dishevelled return home to his hotel of ill repute.

A final coup de theatre leaves the audience with a heartrending image of the Macbeth family portrait that might have been, a feeling of real tragic catharsis - and of anticipation – looking forward to the next reunion of this exciting ensemble