Watermill Theatre - Macbeth
28th February to 30th March 2019
Review from Newbury Theatre.
Macbeth is the fourth in the Watermill Ensemble’s Shakespeare series bringing together Director Paul Hart, Designer Katie Lias, Lighting Designer Tom White and Sound Designer David Gregory along with some familiar faces from the previous productions.
Macbeth and Banquo emerge bloodied from the flickering half-light of the opening battle scene to be surrounded by a whole coven of witches but we’re soon into familiar territory with Duncan handing out the honours and preparing to visit the Macbeths at home. Or rather at Hotel Macbeth, a rather sleazy establishment, underlined by the singing of The House of the Rising Sun.
Now, about the music… As usual, we have actor-musicians and although there are some full-on songs some of the music is played and sung by one or two of the cast, often unobtrusively in the background, and this works well. The songs are all modern(ish) pop songs, 60s and later. Although some of them could be loosely linked to the text (In Dreams gave a clever twist to the murder of Duncan), others were less obvious. Paul Hart told me that the relevance is to the text or the subtext so maybe I’d need to see the play again to appreciate the significance.
Billy Postlethwaite’s Macbeth was at his best as a fighter, lacking passion in the domestic environment. When told of Lady Macbeth’s death, he seemed detached, bemused, amused even. There was little chemistry between him and Lady Macbeth, a strong performance from Emma McDonald especially in the sleepwalking scene. This was understated, which worked well, but brought her into physical contact with the Doctor, the Lady in Waiting and even the audience.
Among the other characters, Victoria Blunt was a strong Malcolm and Lillie Flynn was Banquo, needing more volume. Eva Feiler was a delight as the general dogsbody and porter at the hotel, reprising her diffident character as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
As we would expect from Hart, this is a very imaginative production with a great deal going on. After Duncan’s death, the lights behind the O and T in the HOTEL sign go out, leaving us in HEL, emphasising the significance of the number 6 on each of the three adjacent doors at the back of the set – the mark of the beast on the gates of hell? Lady Macbeth sings V-E-R-Y to Macbeth while Banquo does a bizarre dance of death around them.
Katy Lias’s set is a stark, dilapidated building with blood running down the wall at times and Tom White’s lighting effectively enhances the action.
It’s a bold new production with a lot to think about and take in. It will appeal to young people and maybe puzzle older audiences – a good thing on both counts.
Review from the Newbury Weekly News.
Watermill Ensemble bring a fresh approach to the Scottish play
Macbeth, at The Watermill, Bagnor, until Saturday March 30
Paul Hart's Watermill Ensemble makes a welcome return to the Bagnor playhouse with a thrilling, innovative production of Macbeth. Hart's assured imaginative direction is bold and brave. Gone are the three witches, replaced with the voices of ethereal spirits and fallen soldiers and there is a dark humour entwined throughout this gritty story of ambition, greed and murder.
Katie Lias' foreboding set evokes a wartorn and burnt-out hotel, where there are three doors, each numbered 6 – a true hell on earth and the flickering outdoor sign confirms this. Louise Rhoades Brown's video projections create tree branches and dramatic rivulets of blood flowing down the set and Tom White's atmospheric lighting vividly evokes the mood.
The Watermill's trademark highly-talented actor/musicians add a nuanced commentary to the action, with a song list of classic hits including the Rolling Stones' Paint it Black and Roy Orbison's In Dreams, all beautifully arranged by musical director Maimuna Memon.
Billy Postlethwaite is most impressive as Macbeth, a confident professional soldier who becomes entrapped as the witches' prophesies start to come true. His scheming, assertive wife Lady Macbeth, a striking sultry performance by Emma McDonald, drives the action forward, her ambition challenging her husband's doubts about killing King Duncan.
The cast is gender-blind, so we have Lilly Flynn playing Banquo splendidly, with an undying loyalty to Macbeth that has disastrous results.
Eva Feiler is the loyal porter/receptionist, dressed as a hotel bell boy, bringing much humour to the role – a welcome contrast to the horror of the murders, which really are bloody.
Sally Cheng is moving as the brittle Lady Macduff, whose children are brutally killed, and Mike Slater as Macduff is determined to seek revenge on Macbeth for his slaughter of his family.
There is strong support from Victoria Blunt in the role of Malcolm, Peter Mooney as Duncan's son Donalbain, who flees to Ireland, Offue Okegbe as Lennox and Max Runham playing Duncan and providing much musical drive.
This is a powerful, spirited production that will refresh and challenge your preconceptions of Shakespeare's classic tragedy.
Highly recommended, so book soon.
Review from The Guardian. [The Guardian review also contains a review of another production of Macbeth - this has not been included here]
Two new versions of Macbeth march to a very different beat but music pulses at the heart of both. In Paul Hart’s production at the Watermill, Newbury (★★★★☆), an eclectic range of pop music is performed live on stage and bursts through the seams of almost every scene and every bleeding syllable. The result is a show that burns with purpose, passion and energy to spare. ...
Hart’s take at the Watermill could be seen as less radical [than the other one]. Duncan is still a king, complete with a golden crown. Macbeth is still a blood-soaked and dirt-stained soldier. But while Hart remains faithful to the military setting of Shakespeare’s tragedy, he has taken inspired liberties elsewhere. The use of music, in particular, is really quite brave and unusual. The 10-strong ensemble cast play, sing and perform throughout – both during dazzling set pieces with brilliant arrangements of haunting songs, but also in a series of stolen moments of musical expression.
This was the first time I’ve applauded Duncan’s death. Ditto the other murders, which are all really mad and brilliant fun. During Duncan’s murder, Max Runham beautifully sings Roy Orbison’s In Dreams while a series of sparkly clad women, who have all somehow become versions of Macbeth’s dagger, whirl around the King’s bed. Billy Postlethwaite sits in the middle of this display, entranced and inspired. When Macbeth stabs Duncan, again and again and again, it doesn’t feel like murder. It feels like an encore.
Startling rhyming couplets are sung instead of spoken, and suddenly sound new. Macbeth and Emma McDonald’s Lady Macbeth sing and dance and embrace constantly and independently, as if performing from their own separate and seriously sexy score. There’s a rigour to this production that means even the quirkiest of flourishes – a singing purple-suited porter, a guitar wielded as a weapon, or a wall that bleeds with blood – feel just right. Here is a world in which anything could happen; a world in which daggers really might materialise, the night might howl and moan, and Birnam wood might – just might – come to Dunsinane.
There are reviews from The Stage ("luridly gothic design adds to the atmosphere of this raucous and bloody Macbeth" - ★★★★), WhatsOnStage ("the atmosphere the company create together is one of unbearable mounting tension, of gathering forces of evil... a feeling of real tragic catharsis - and of anticipation – looking forward to the next reunion of this exciting ensemble" - ★★★★), The Spy in the Stalls ("Postlethwaite commands as Macbeth... Shakespeare works best when kept fresh and relevant and sadly this production did not quite manage it" - ★★★), DailyInfo ("drenched in musicality... [the cast] bring a vibrant energy to the production, rarely stopping to let the audience catch their breath... The Watermill Ensemble goes from strength-to-strength"), Oxford Times ("will delight and dismay, I guess, in almost equal measure... a powerful, pacy production" - ★★★★), Pocket Size Theatre ("certainly more engaging and entertaining than the NT version on the vast Olivier stage last year... fresh exciting and modern" - ★★★), Henley Standard ("an enormously impressive team of professionals at the top of their game... a production that is quite new and unique in its accessibility and use of music to accentuate emotions and create tension... superbly staged production").