Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Macbeth with guitars doesn’t quite manage to paint it black

Macbeth with guitars doesn’t quite manage to paint it black

Macbeth | Oxford Playhouse | Tuesday, September 17

THERE is much that is good in Macbeth at the Playhouse this week, but sadly not enough.

The effects, lighting, innovative use of a video wall and the idea of accompanying rock music are right in the zone of modern theatre.

But I’m sorry to say the casting isn’t great.

Billy Postlethwaite was exceptional as Captain Stanhope in a Watermill production of Journey’s End five years ago, but here he lacks the malice and bullying power needed for the ruthless Macbeth.

Other characters are often underpowered, relying on shouting when projection would have been more effective

This Scottish play has come to us via the Watermill as well, and it has some of their trademark stamps — actor-musicians and an abundance of imagination being chief among them.

But why we need to see actors carrying a bass guitar or Stratocaster isn’t clear because it doesn’t add anything. And often the choice of music is bizarre and shoehorned into the narrative.

For instance, while a version of the Rolling Stones classic Paint It Black is adapted to fit the idea of a dark mood and an evil heart, that’s not what the song is about.

Deep Purple’s Black Night would have been suitable, or even something from Black Sabbath — although, with all the superstition around this play, that might be going too far.

And what House of the Rising Sun was doing in there I don’t know — it’s a song about a New Orleans brothel.

All of this might have been more acceptable if they’d been performed with conviction, but they were mediocre. And while we’re still with the music, a lot of the time it obscured keynote speeches — including some of Shakespeare’s greatest lines.

On the plus side Emma McDonald is beautiful, talented and absolutely right for Lady Macbeth — the driving force behind her husband’s evil ambition. Whenever she’s on stage we feel in safe hands.

The idea of staging it in modern battle fatigues as if the rampaging army was in the Balkans or Central Africa may not be fresh, but it works, as does the carousing and fighting — although the National Theatre’s own Macbeth a few months ago at Oxford’s New Theatre did it a lot more effectively.

However, this Watermill production dates from 2018, so could it be that the National took the idea and amplified it?

A quite good show, then, but not a great one.

Until Saturday.

Mike Rowbottom

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