The anniversary year of Shakespeare’s death continues apace with theatres everywhere staging their favourite pieces. The funereal and tragic Macbeth, a furious story of murder, power and ambition, seems entirely apt to mark the death of one of our most beloved playwrights.
The story, historically a crowd-pleaser that was slotted in when another failed production was pulled (which is why it’s considered an unlucky play – unlucky for other acting companies), is drenched in blood and mysticism.
And none more so than Arrows & Traps’ riveting production which began a run at the New Wimbledon Studio last night.
It’s hard to pull off witchcraft, spells and incantations in a small studio space, and on a tiny budget, but director Ross McGregor (surely some Scots in there somewhere) works his own charms on the story.
He’s helped by truly spellbinding performances from his two key players – David Paisley’s remarkable turn as the tortured Macbeth and Cornelia Baumann as the power behind the throne, Lady Macbeth.
All too often the murderous couple are portrayed as cold-hearted schemers who kill without compassion in their single-minded determination to take the throne in Scotland.
But here we see the full extent of their pain and anguish, he for being forced to kill those he loves and she for displaying a rarely seen guilt at their actions.
Paisley’s Macbeth is deeply flawed and immensely emotional. In this modern-dress production the actor appears a bull of a man with closely shaven head, full red beard, earrings and tatoos (the sort you probably wouldn’t want to meet on a late Saturday night on the streets of Glasgow).
But here’s a performance that pulls out the humanity in the tyrant. His soliloquies are choked and accompanied with tears as though a hellish supernatural spirit is willing him on, driving him to commit terrible deeds.
McGregor plays around with time by stopping the action at a banquet to allow Macbeth and his wife to debate the pros and cons of killing Duncan, in this instance, their queen (Jean Apps looking absolutely right and very regal).
The revellers are frozen at the table as the determined pair move around them, plotting how to commit – and get away – with their treacherous plan to snatch the crown.
Banquo is another gender swap which works well. It’s highly unlikely Macbeth would have taken a women into battle as his number two but Becky Black as a fearless Banquo, the possible threat to the succession of Macbeth’s children, seems spot on.
Watching Paisley prowl around the set in this very physical production that features some well-staged dagger fights you can’t help feel a little sympathy for him. No, surely not?
Baumann’s portrayal is equally humane. She cries out for relief, horrified at what jealousy, power and ambition has done to her.
It’s hard to be convinced by the production’s weird sisters. The three hags, who deliver some of the most chilling lines in Shakespeare, here come across as a struggling 1980’s girl group, complete with mismatched costumes and steampunk-style goggles who sing a couple of songs accompanied by eccentric choreography.
Supporting performances are less accomplished with a gang of murderers looking more like a student comedy act and servants dressed for Little Red Riding Hood.
Pearce Sampson, who I last saw in an Ayckbourn comedy, injects moments of light as a bawdy porter but his later behaviour, torturing a manservant, makes uncomfortable watching.
The whole bloody night builds to an electrifying climax with a rather effective denouement as Macbeth faces imminent death.
Macbeth plays at New Wimbledon Studio until July 9 with a special, one-off performance on July 22 at the Globe Theatre, The Bedford, Balham.
David Paisley and Cornelia Baumann deliver electrifying performances as Macbeth and his lady in Arrows & Traps’ production of the Scottish play at the New Wimbledon Studio.