Blue backlights flood through open doorways. Against it, the silhouettes of soldiers stand to attention. From the moment it begins, The Watermill Theatre’s interpretation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth is bleak and mystical, translating the otherworldliness of eleventh-century Scotland into a modern-day military base.
In this delightfully diverse and gender-blind adaptation directed by Paul Hart, each cast member brings a vibrant life and urgent presence to the stage. Especially poignant are the eponymous leads; Billy Postlethwaite as Macbeth effortlessly sells the devolution from confident soldier to a paranoid king consumed by his own hubris. Boiling beneath the surface, however, is a desperate humanity, which claws to the fore as the new king silently contemplates ordering the death of young Fleance (Lucy Keirl). Alongside him is Lady Macbeth, (Emma McDonald), whose diverse emotional range spans from neurotic to bold to clinically insane — all on top of a deep devotion and sexual charge towards her beloved husband. Together, they conspire in frantic secrecy, transitioning flawlessly between their public personas and the crushing pressure of their conscience.
This performance pulls no punches, blurring the diegetics with the insertion of live music. Characters bring instruments on stage to play beneath the dialogue, then disappear into the wings, leaving only their continuous riffs behind. A contemporary song list, including The Rolling Stones’ Paint it Black and alt-J’s Bloodflood, produces additional motifs outside of the script — “heavy is the head that wears the crown,” the cast sing in chorus as Macbeth relishes in his coronation, and later when Malcolm (Molly Chesworth) takes his place. Glass Animals’ The Other Side of Paradise metatextually bids the more unfortunate characters farewell in the run-up to their deaths, while the assassination of Banquo (Robyn Sinclair) is offset by Lady Macbeth’s gleeful rendition of Gregory Porter’s L-O-V-E. Even the iconic “something wicked this way comes” monologue is given a melody. Not only do these choices enhance the play’s themes of duplicity, fate and predestined failure, but they also assist in blending the language of the Bard with a twenty-first-century aesthetic, and do so seamlessly.
Said aesthetic is rich in creative ideas. The dilapidated hotel that the characters reside in places three doors upstage centre, each one labelled with the number six; the sign hanging above their heads flickers out until it simply reads ‘HEL’. Actors peer through holes in walls, climb ladders and stand on two elevated platforms, with a desk, a chair and a bed wheeled on and off stage according to the needs of the scene. Black balloons hint at murder in the royal dinner held in Banquo’s absence, while the transition into Birnam Wood sees white, jagged trees climbing up the set pieces via projection. Perhaps most striking is Macbeth’s stabbing of King Duncan in his bed, which triggers a bag of feathers to fall from the rafters, the lights flickering with each fatal blow. All this achieves the contradictory effect of creating a definitive setting, yet also suggesting a sense of liminal space and emptiness; the protagonists fight for ownership of a desolate land that warps, transforms, in itself as unstable as the throne they desire. With the environment itself speaks of the evil that inhabits it, one begins to question whether the fault truly lies in Macbeth, the man, or whether his surroundings have twisted him into a killer.
The abandonment of naturalistic convention is not a new idea in the continued exploration of Shakespeare’s works — nevertheless, Watermill’s take is visually appealing and thought-provoking. In thunder, lightning or rain, this production is worth a watch.