Macbeth review or 'Making Shakespeare sing.'
Macbeth - Watermill Theatre and The Haymarket
Written for The Guardian
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. The music in Proteus’s touring production (★★☆☆☆) feels less vital. Pop songs blare out of the speakers at various pivotal moments but it is background sound and fury, signifying little.
For Proteus, director Mary Swan has taken one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest plays and fairly awkwardly plonked it in the midst of the 1980s stock market. In this new context, King Duncan becomes a flashy fund manager, played with an interesting whiff of seediness by Danny Charles; his son Malcolm is now a suited female assistant (Jessica Andrade), frantically taking calls and racing after her boss. A ticker tape runs across the back of the stage, lit up with trading numbers: the Duncan and Scott stock is on the rise. For now.
Riz Meedin’s Macbeth wears a snazzy suit, hosts fancy dinners with his glamorous wife (Alexandra Afryea) and has a penchant for coke, clubs and pounding pop music. The idea of a drug-addled Macbeth could potentially work quite well: the rush of a coke-induced high suits Shakespeare’s frantically paced play. But Meedin is a rather meek Macbeth who speaks softly and acts tentatively. All his talk of “vaulting ambition” is tough to stomach, and the thought of this particular Macbeth stabbing his boss as he sleeps (no matter how much coke he’s snorted) is verging on fantastical.
Hart’s take at the Watermill could be seen as less radical. 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.