Above: Elly Meacham & Tom Thornton as Lady Macbeth & Macbeth - as they are crowned Scotland's King and Queen. Photo by Ben Copping
Shakespeare’s shortest and possibly most famous tragedy forms part of Putney Theatre Company’s current season and is perfectly timed to commemorate this weekend’s centenary of the armistice of WWI by director Ian Higham. Set in ‘The Scottish Play’s’ native homeland as The Great War comes to an end, the heroic Macbeth and Banquo come face to face with a trio of Wyrd Sisters who set in motion a murderous sequence of events in play when they sow a regal seed of ambition in the Thane’s head.
At four hundred years old it’s probably safe to say The Bard’s play isn’t up for review any more, which puts any critique solely at the door of PTC. The society’s production – performed in Putney Arts Theatre, a converted church – offers plenty of style and atmosphere using Higham’s minimalistic design. However, with such a large company (around twenty-three), the constant challenge within the amateur sector is casting strength in depth; one weak link and your audience will instantly wake up from the fantasy that theatre promises to deliver.
While I’m certainly not going to ‘put the boot in’ and pick on anybody in particular, I can certainly choose several performances for special mention. Tom Thornton’s titular role is delivered with a nice amount of naturalism, as is Elly Meacham’s Lady Macbeth. The journey they both take as they dig themselves further and further into their bloody hole is done very well, with Lady M’s sleepwalking scene wonderfully underplayed while also brimming with energy from Meacham.
Michael Rossi’s experience as the fated King Duncan is plain to see, and I particularly enjoyed watching Jerome Joseph Kennedy as the impassioned Macduff. Louisa Pead gives good value too as Macduff's ill-fated wife. In support, Paul Bradley is also strong throughout delivering a convincing Ross.
Beth Pederson, Penny Weatherall and Ellen Fife excel as the witches, creating a synchronised unison of creepy tension whenever onstage. The use of subtle vocal effects make the trio even more unnatural and I love the idea of having all three appear in full glamour in the final scene as if their sinister and murderous duty is eventually spent with the death of Macbeth.
A word is also due for the climactic fight scene between Macduff and Macbeth which features traditional sword-play extensively choreographed by Harry Chambers. Great credit goes to Thornton and Kennedy for obviously putting in a lot of rehearsal time around this area.
I know it’s difficult when hiring costumes – and full credit to Simon Crump for his authentic designs throughout – but the soldiers would look much more realistic if covered in filth and mud from the ravages of battle – rather than as if they were about to appear on parade, right down to their neat leggings and shiny boots. The appearance of five barbed-wire covered tree stumps across the stage would suggest much of the action takes place around the muddy battlefields - so let's see it!
The other criticism I really have to deliver is the lack of general noise; or the ‘Shakespeare trap’ which many amateurs tend to fall foul of. It’s the staring at somebody deliver their Shakespearian speech while staying dumbstruck. This is apparent, by way of example, in the banquet scene when Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost (featuring Ruby Todd’s brilliant bloody make-up job on Graham Kellas)… He might be the King of Scotland, but actors seem to think they’re not allowed to mutter a single syllable if Shakespeare hasn’t written it in the script. Naturally vocalised reactions would make many scenes much more vibrant and realistic. The early soldier scenes as well as Malcolm and Macduff’s latter scene together also suffer from these symptoms, where some actors take it in turns to fall silent while other come alive as they talk.
It’s not easy though… just ask the National Theatre’s Artistic Director, Rufus Norris, after his production of Macbeth starring Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff was ripped to shreds by the critics earlier this year, so full credit should be given to PTC for not only doing The Bard proud but also in paying tribute to the memory of WWI’s fallen heroes.
Macbeth plays at Putney Arts Theatre until Sunday, 11th November, where the run ends with a special Remembrance Sunday matinee.
More at: www.putneytheatrecompany.org.uk/productions/2018/05/02/macbeth
Below: L-R Ellen Fife, Beth Pedersen and Penny Weatherall make up the Wyrd Sisters. Photo by Ben Copping