THEATRE REVIEW: Macbeth, New Wimbledon Studio

running until 9 July

Arrows and Traps are back with another bold re-imagining of a Shakespearean text, after their previous incarnations of The Taming of the Shrew and Titus Andronicus. This time it’s The Scottish Play that is given the Traps treatment, and on paper it seems like the ideal piece for their brand of reinvention. There are many strong performances to be found, and some interesting creative decisions, but there are a few elements of staging that undermine the power and maturity of the production.

Cornelia Baumann and David Paisley as the Macbeths - Macbeth - Arrows and Traps
Cornelia Baumann and David Paisley as the Macbeths (c) Davor Tovarlaza at the Ocular Creative

As the titular warrior, David Paisley is consistent and impressive; his assertive and war-like demeanour crumbles into a man on the edge,

with cracks appearing and the effects of shock and violence etched in his face and haunting his eyes. Both he and Cornelia Baumann (as Lady Macbeth) are guilty of a little too much breathlessness in their acting, with heavy breathing being employed for everything from lust to fear to anger to madness – it’s all a bit overdone at times. However, Baumann’s performance grows steadily stronger throughout, an unmistakable gleam in her eye with every step towards power. Her sleepwalking scene reins things back in and is undoubtedly powerful without becoming overwrought. Becky Black, gender-blind cast as Banquo, is equally impressive, inhabiting the role with confidence and moving from easy charm in the opening scenes to credible fear in the latter stages of her narrative. Her ghostly scenes are staged well, although the abruptness of the interval halfway through the banquet ends up breaking the tension rather than creating cliffhanger suspense, as was presumably intended.

Alex Stevens also puts in a striking performance when he reappears as the victorious Malcolm in the play’s climactic scenes, while Pearce Sampson shines in the small but scene-stealing role of the Porter – the famous light relief of this bloody tragedy. It’s a nice touch to see him welcoming the audience as they arrive into the New Wimbledon’s black box studio, breaking the fourth wall in anticipation for a show that puts the audience in such close proximity to the action.

Elle Banstead-Salim as one of the Witches (c) Davor Tovarlaza at the Ocular Creative.
(c) Davor Tovarlaza at the Ocular Creative.

From knowing Arrows and Traps’s work, I was expecting something remarkable from the appearance of the witches, as they are certainly the element of the play with which companies can have the most creative fun – the ambiguity of their form, their undoubted creepiness and their oh-so-famous chanting lines lend them perfectly to some kind of spectacular reinvention. Costume designer Ross McGregor has kitted them out inventively, with steampunk-inspired goggles and materials such as satin and lace giving them a weird yet oddly seductive air. However, some of the staging decisions are disappointing and undermine the work of the cast. Notably, the inclusion of modern songs leaves the trio of Elle Banstead-Salim, Olivia Stott and Monique Williams very exposed. Their voices are not strong enough to carry off the vocals with sufficient power (and it is often hard to hear the lyrics over the backing track), the choreography is stilted and the motivation for including the songs is unclear. Adding songs into Shakespeare plays is always a risk, and over the years I’ve seen it work wonderfully or flop terribly. For me, additional songs have to hold some relevance to the overall aesthetic journey of the piece or they will stand out like a sore thumb; unfortunately, I didn’t see any in this case. Furthermore, the use of what looked suspiciously like bicycle lights to attempt an eerie lighting effect also falls flat. For the most part, Arrows and Traps succeed in creating impressive atmosphere on a presumably quite small budget, but in this case the effect came across as amateurish and uninspiring.

These factors are a shame, because on the whole this is a committed ensemble who are producing enjoyable theatre with recognisable and successful creative ambition. Arrows and Traps have carved out a brand of theatre that is unmistakably theirs, and you always know you are going to be surprised and intrigued by what they have to offer. This latest production needs a keen eye and a bit of tough love to strip away some of the elements that fall flat and maximise the talents of its cast.

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