The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead

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September 2019

Macbeth Review

Catherine Martin

One of Shakespeare’s most popular plays in the modern day, Macbeth is a classic for a reason.  It’s fast-paced and thrillingly dark – but for all the battles and apparitions, the relationships and betrayals at the heart of the play are intimate:  guest and host, husband and wife, best friends. There’s a timeless quality to Macbeth that lends itself to experimentation and reinvention.  But when a play has already been reimagined so many ways, how do you offer a truly fresh take? 

The recent Hampstead Players’ production of Macbeth, directed by Richard Ward and Matthew Williams, pulled it off with aplomb. 

At the heart of the story are Macbeth (Matthew Williams) and Lady Macbeth (Sarah Day).  The Players’ version does something brilliant (and surprisingly rare) with the Macbeths:it makes them likeable.  These two aren’t manipulative monsters from the outset.  Instead, they come across as a couple you might know – young, ambitious, glamorous, and very much in love.  Even as it starts to become clear how far they’re willing to go in service of their ambitions, they’re still endearing; it’s hard not to feel charmed when they look at each other mid-murder plot and burst into giddy, horrified laughter.

And that’s really the key to this version of Macbeth.  We’re not watching a pair of monsters get their comeuppance.  We’re watching a normal couple we like decide to do a terrible thing, and rapidly go flying off the rails.  Macbeth’s spiral from a jovial commander beloved by his troops to the man callously terrorising his underlings in the final act feels shocking.  Meanwhile, Lady Macbeth’s final scene broke my heart:  she’s less crazy than she is a woman broken by the weight of her own guilt, trying and failing to understand how everything has gone so wrong.  (Moragh Gee as the doctor whose learning falters in the face of this tragedy, and Margaret Pritchard Houston as the gentlewoman whose wry scepticism underscores how hopeless things are, really help drive this scene home.)

The other leads are equally strong.  Adrian Hughes gives a wonderfully subtle performance as Macduff.  He’s the picture of a stoic military man, a perfect foil for the Porter (Harlequin) – who does a marvellous job of playing off him and engaging the audience.  But when Macduff receives word of his family’s deaths, the deft, understated way Hughes portrays that grief makes it all the more palpable.  It’s also impossible not to be won over by the playful affection between Lady Macduff (Mary Groom) and her son (Rufus Pennock) – who also plays Fleance, bringing great talent and flair to both roles.

Cara Pennock’s Banquo is fantastic, a bluff, intelligent soldier who’s loyal without being a fool.  Her tight friendship with Macbeth is one of the most moving elements of the play, making his betrayal of her devastating to watch.  Jon Waters is a dignified and sympathetic Duncan, one the audience actually feels sad to lose, while Hannah Slater makes Duncan’s firstborn, Morgan (Malcolm in the original play) a full-fledged character in her own right.  Her initial response to her father’s murder is to hold the whole room at gunpoint – one of my favourite moments for the way it ratchets up the sense of threat in an already dramatic scene – and by the end of the play, she’s become a queen whose ascent we can genuinely cheer.

Oscar Blend’s Ross is charming and slyly funny, but with a touch of real pathos as he, too, loses family to Macbeth’s growing paranoia.  Seyton (Cristina Bancora) is also a poignant figure, Bancora’s eloquent expressions and reactions vividly illustrating what it’s like for her to hang on as she watches her master unravel in front of her.  Sheena Craig’s sympathetic performance as Lennox puts a human face to the growing sense of loss and terror as chaos engulfs the kingdom.  I even found myself intrigued by the murderers (Ashley Collin and Courtney Terwilliger), whose lively and nuanced performances hint at richer backstories than these characters commonly get.

One absolute highlight is the witches.  Hana Salussolia, Courtney Terwilliger, and Mary Groom give deeply unnerving performances – made all the more eerie because the production, in another clever move, plays with the idea that the witches might just be ordinary.  Do they genuinely have the power to see the future?  Or are they three twisted, morbid women wandering a battlefield, mixing “potions” out of corpse parts in battered tin mugs, and all of Macbeth’s temptations and fears are in his own head?  Gaynor Bassey-Fish and Matthew Gardner’s lighting and Kim Boursnell’s sound do wonders to create a sense of creeping dread that permeates the play, while Jane Mayfield’s WWII-era costumes help contrast the grim battlefield with the glittering, carefree bubble of the nobility’s peacetime lives, making it even more striking as we watch that bubble burst.

All in all, a stellar cast, ably directed, give us a Macbeth that’s gripping, inventive, and – most of all – human.

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