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Macbeth (Susan Elkin reviews)

By William Shakespeare. Presented by The Watermill Theatre
society/company: West End & Fringe
performance date: 23 Jan 2020
venue: Wilton’s Music Hall, Graces Alley, London E1 8JB

Emma McDonald, Billy Postlethwaite and members of the Ensemble. Photo: Pamela Raith


The (carefully managed) faded, peeling, distressed ambience of Wilton’s Music Hall is ideal for a dark play like Macbeth – in fact, given the grey brick surround it’s quite hard to tell where Katie Lias’s sombre set ends and Wiltons begins until we get to projections of blood trickling down the back wall eventually forming a sanguine forest. This ensemble take on Macbeth (in repertory with A Midsummer Night’s Dream) is very physical, pacey and succinct. There’s a lot in it to admire although sometimes it gets carried away. The rendering of The House of the Rising Sun, for example, adds nothing. Moreover Jamie Sattherthwaite (who plays Duncan) is a good actor but he shouldn’t have been asked to sing this given his iffy intonation.

We start with a very muscular account of the battle, before the ensemble turns into witches – understated in this version and none the worse for that. Other original ideas include the murder of Duncan on stage, setting the Inverness scenes in a hotel and intercutting the English scene with the murder of the Macduff family which brings fresh immediacy. The text is intelligently cut too – we lose Duncan’s interview with the Bloody Sargeant, quite a bit of witch incantation and most of the verbiage of the English scene and once we get into Act V the pace really hots up.

Emma Mcdonald is outstanding as Lady Macbeth. She looks wonderful – glitteringly attractive especially in the red outfit she wears once her status has risen. She articulates the verse beautifully and really shows us how her character is spiralling downwards from the assertive wife, later crazed with drink and horror. Her sleepwalking scene is one of the most moving I’ve seen. You couldn’t possibly feel anything but sympathy. This was, untimately, no “fiendlike queen” – just a lost woman

Billy Postlewaite is excellent in the title role too and I liked his rapport with Banquo (Robyn Sinclair – good) in the early scenes. He has a way of looking at the audience complicitly and he too speaks the lines with such clarity that the story tells itself.

The real drama on press night happened five minutes after the start when Lauryn Redding, ensemble and Lady Macduff, sustained an injury on stage which meant that the stage manager had to stop the show. This is the unlucky “Scottish play” after all. Emma Barclay, who has played this role before, happened to be in the audience and stepped into Redding’s shoes: a classic case of “The show must go on” although by then it was running almost an hour late. We were told by director Paul Hart that Barclay would play it “on script.” In fact she didn’t. Her unrehearsed contribution was actually pretty impressive and she certainly saved the day.

There’s a lot of music in this production which has a number of actor-musos in the cast. The use of drums and low level choral singing to create atmosphere works effectively but the solo sung numbers are irrelevant and distracting.

Members of the Watermill Ensemble. Photo: Pamela Raith

First published by Sardines:
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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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