“Who could refrain that had a heart to love”
Theatre company Arrows & Traps came belatedly onto my radar with their rather stunning rendition of Anna Karenina earlier this year so I was keen to check out what they’d do next, which turned out to be Macbeth in the similar black box space of the New Wimbledon’s Studio. Adapted and directed by Ross McGregor, this modern Macbeth continually builds on its interesting choices to deliver a final 10 minute sequence that is as achingly affecting as any version of the play I’ve ever seen.
And they are strong choices for the most part too. Arrows & Traps’ commitment to gender equality sees them offer up a company that has 6 women to 5 men, casually flipping Duncan (Jean Apps) and Banquo (an excellently badass Becky Black) into female roles and having the witches double up as murderers and soldiers. In some ways its a small thing but in others, it still feels radical; as pointed out, majority-female fight scenes as those seen here are few and far between.
The modern setting is wisely underplayed, David Paisley’s titular warrior demonstrates the symptoms of what we might call PTSD now but the core of the play, and this production, is the sheer intensity of the relationship between the Macbeths. Their first reunion is played with an agonising potency, sexual hunger bleeding into something animalistic, especially once they confirm the plans to realise the ambitions that they both share – there’s no mistaking the gleam in Lady M’s eye here as she’s given the crown for safekeeping upon Duncan’s visit.
Equally, there’s no doubting the role of the supernatural here. The witches combine a mishmash of influences – steampunk goggles, singer/songwriter musical interludes (I think I heard a bit of Kyla La Grange in there), omnipresent looming – to become something genuinely disturbing, their second-act incantations brought chills to the spine. And it is into this all-too-real occult that Cornelia Baumann’s Lady Macbeth taps quite astoundingly with her ‘unsex me here’ speech, a reading of devastating power.
McGregor’s adaptation finds more of these moments – the Macduffs’ murder is another powerful strike – but it doesn’t quite always maintain the same level of fresh invention. It is only in the final moments that all its elements coalesce into something wonderful, in the way that made Anna Karenina sing, as the swells of Samuel Morgan-Grahame and Gemma Salter’s music give rise to a gorgeous dance of the dead, capped off with an enormous emotional sucker-punch.
And then the closing image that manages to incorporate both present and future, the power of the real world and yet the lingering impact of the supernatural…it’s a stunning finale that makes you wish just a little bit more of this magic had been sprinkled earlier on in the play (I will thank the person that finally makes Malcolm and Macduff’s scene one to watch rather than endure). Still, much here to enjoy here with these intensely committed performances and a rare vision from Arrows & Traps that marks them as one on whom to definitely keep an eye.
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Production Shots by Davor Tovarlaza at the Ocular Creative
Booking until 9th July, then playing Globe Theatre, N16, The Bedford, Balham on 22nd July