Review: Macbeth

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The QEH Theatre becomes a gladiatorial apocalyptic arena as Shakespeare’s Macbeth unfurls in an extraordinarily dramatic, bloody and unsettling way — a truly spectacular production

James Wearmouth on Macbeth at the QEH Theatre, showing Wednesday 22nd to Friday 24th July

Press Night descends on QEH Theatre, Bristol’s premier small theatre, as Macbeth goes under scrutiny.

William Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ is rooted in the ideas of ambition, power and self-preservation. Driven by determination to become King Macbeth is willing to kill all that stand in his way and bets his future on the prophesies of three witches after he becomes Thane of Cawdor. Beside him his wife, Lady Macbeth, is extremely significant in fueling Macbeth’s ambition and urging him to achieve his destiny.

What? The QEH Theatre has gone “round”?!? The production is performed in the round and so there is no bad seat in the house and the actors work tirelessly to ensure that no viewer is left unengaged. It is the first time in 25 years that the QEH Theatre has staged a production in this style and it creates a fully immersive atmosphere.

Production of Macbeth at the QEH TheatreA full blackout, throbbing music and a wisp of smoke set the production in motion. Three cloaked figures emerge from the shadows with whispers of ‘Macbeth’ from all around. ‘Fair is foul and Foul is Fair’ said in unison as many more witches appear alongside the traditional three. The costumes of the witches are highly effective; making the preconception of a pointy-nosed witch with a cauldron dashed and replaced by Assassin Creed-esque outfits. The whispering witches set the tone from the very beginning, creating an air of terror before even meeting Macbeth. The much larger group of witches in their dark costumes reminded me of the Ku Klux Klan – always working together in the shadows to make sure their goals are achieved. The witches, are in the main, extremely attentive although occasional fidgeting slightly detracted from the overall effectiveness.

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Macbeth, played by Harry Saunders and Lady Macbeth, played by Biba Vann, are a duo which are astonishingly well cast. Saunders enters stage left, majestically walking down the stairs to centre stage. Saunders’ cool air entering the auditorium foreshadows his rise to power and it is at this moment when Macbeth appears to be most happy reinforcing the idea that power and greed can lead to a great fall. Saunders appears joyful before meeting the witches, becomes paranoid after killing Duncan and ends wanting to kill everyone who opposes him. Saunders portrays his worry hiding his hands behind his back and shiftily looking at the audience. He returns a performance that is extremely emotional encouraging the audience to invest  a high degree of attention. Saunders shows his vulnerability and discomfort though voice cracks and a worried tone of voice and it is clear to the audience that Macbeth feels pressured to the core by Lady Macbeth.

Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.

Biba Vann’s Lady Macbeth is sly, manipulative and utterly believable—all the things that make the perfect part. She dominates Macbeth in the first half allowing the original story in this abridged production to come alive. A hand roughing Macbeth’s hair another in the palm of his and a re-assuring yet cunning smile allows Lady Macbeth’s character to take true form. Vann’s portrayal reinforces Lady Macbeth dual personality: manipulative to the core yet sweet on the exterior. ‘Sit worthy friends’ and a forced smile from Vann portrays to the ensemble that nothing out of the ordinary is occurring, yet Macbeth is greeted by a vision of Banquo, Macbeth’s last victim. Vann fills the boots of the character, pulling off a fully engaging performance; I look forward to seeing more QEH/Cotham collaborations.

Fair is foul, and foul is fair; Hover through the fog and filthy air.

Production of Macbeth at the QEH Theatre

It is very easy to forget those who don’t have a large part but for me many smaller roles deserve a mention. Firstly, Freddie Wright is fully invested in his role and limps onto stage to tell his news – bringing a marvellous energy and enthusiasm. Furthermore, Barnaby Johns shows dedication to his multiple roles showing much versatility from a straight-backed Lord to a bloody and intense murderer. All of the three scripted witches fill their characters with flair and individuality. Ollie Kerslake makes his character truly distinguishable – a menacing look, surveying the audience to make the audience feel uncomfortable and uneasy. Nathaniel Tomkins approaches his  role with an air of mystery as if the wisest witch of them all. Otto Reade, debuting in the QEH Theatre, is incredibly committed and focused allowing his character to be fully believed; delivering his lines with a blood cooling tone. Julius Cordey as Malcolm returns a performance of stunning quality – he strides around the stage and embraces the Lords demonstrating that he is worthy material for the new king.

Once again, following ‘Six Characters in Search of an Author’, Tom Conradi delivers a performance of outstanding commitment. His energy as Banquo is dashed as the ghost of Banquo. Blood covered and matted hair topped with an expressionless face makes this apparition remarkably unsettling.

Production of Macbeth at the QEH TheatreWhat sights my Lord?

Musically I would have preferred a wider variety. After the fifth time of hearing blaring trumpets and banging drums I began to feel like I’d joined the army and was about to embark on a quest to find the missing key of Aragon or slay a dragon.

The set is sparse yet fully complementing the production. Five naked light-bulbs, dangling from the rig, and blood on the floor is the entirety of the sets make-up. Yet, in a QEH theatre first, rain falls from the rig! The final skirmish of the play ends with Macbeth and Macduff (Harry Dayus) fighting with daggers whilst the rain falls! The precision and choreography are very impressive and both Saunders and Dayus work together to pull this scene off with raw emotion and excellent physicality.

Production of Macbeth at the QEH TheatreIn the final scene Malcolm is crowned: it is not often that a piece of theatre combined with astonishing music can be so impacting on an audience—yet this was. Heart racing and a feeling of victory is instilled, I walked away from the evening feeling utterly mesmerized.

Harry Saunders as Macbeth and Biba Vann as Lady Macbeth are outstandingly well matched and are very easy to watch and engage. The ensemble worked well too and created a piece of theatre which was truly inspiring and enjoyable to watch. I would urge anybody to cancel any prior arrangements made and watch the spectacle which is “Macbeth” — I guarantee that you will love it!

★★★★★


Macbeth is showing at the QEH Theatre on Wednesday 22nd, Thursday 23rd and Friday 24th July at 7:30pm. Tickets are priced at £7 (concessions £5) and are available on the door or via ParentPay.