A double bill of supernatural Shakespeare has been touring the UK, performed by the remarkable Watermill Ensemble.
I don’t normally review plays on this blog (I normally review them for this hyperlocal site in Cardiff), but these exceptional productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth deserve exceptional treatment.
I was lucky enough to see both – they played on alternate nights, and with matinees too – in Cardiff this month [October 2019], as part of the tour which also included Newcastle, Oxford, Poole, and Cheltenham, before ending in Norwich this week [18th October].
These plays are among the most popular of Shakespeare’s works, but could hardly be more different – Dream is a light romantic comedy, while Macbeth is perhaps the darkest of his plays (at least the commonly performed ones) – a gloomy and violent tale of ambition and death.
They make fascinating companions, however, both with supernatural forces driving the actions – mischievous fairies casting love spells in Dream and evil witches predicting (or directing?) deadly events in Macbeth.
And these productions from Watermill – with the same cast and set – capture these contrasting worlds magnificently, thanks largely to incredibly versatile performers and the musical numbers they sing and play to illustrate the action.
They all deserve a mention, so here’s a big Piece of Pink Pie shout-out to: Emma Barclay, Molly Chesworth, Lucy Keirl, Emma McDonald, Peter Mooney, Offue Okegbe, Billy Postlethwaite, Jamie Satterthwaite, Robyn Sinclair, and Mike Slader.
Dream was an energetic and hugely entertaining adaptation of the ultimate romantic comedy of fairy spells, love, and mistaken identity. And the music included soulful songs by the likes of Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Sam Cooke, and Laura Mvula – including a show-stopping version of My Baby Just Cares for Me.
Macbeth, on the other hand was a tense and brooding tragedy of ambition, and for this dark and violent production, the numbers were more rock and roll – from the Rolling Stones, The Animals, and The XX.
In Dream, Emma Barclay was the comedy stand-out as a female Bottom – perhaps channelling the spirit of Victoria Wood in a performance which generated plenty of laughs, not least when she’s turned into an ass and unexpectedly becomes the object of fairy queen Titania’s (Emma McDonald) desire.
The versatility of the cast is astounding. As an example, Offue Okegbe personified seriousness as Theseus, but delivered a superb comedy turn as the ‘mechanical’ playing the part of a wall in the play within the play. He then turned up playing a mean bass guitar in the musical numbers!
Then there was Emma McDonald doubling up as the respectable Hippolyta and the lustful Titania – and playing the saxophone.
There is little joy or laughter in Macbeth, of course, but the performances were no less impressive. Billy Postlethwaite in the title role and Emma McDonald as Lady Macbeth were exceptionally powerful.
He – the son of the late actor Pete Postlethwaite – was thoroughly convincing as the tortured anti-hero, on an inevitable path to his own downfall.
And she was absolutely mesmerising – wowing the audience as the dynamic, self-confident woman pushing (or pulling) her man to fulfil his destiny, and later holding us in silent awe as the pitiful shadow of her former self, driven mad with guilt.
These were both superb productions – very accessible for the newcomer, making them a perfect gateway to Shakespeare. But their innovative approach, and the superb choice of music (and its performance), delivered something very new to those who’ve seen the plays many times before.
The Watermill Ensemble, under artistic director Paul Hart, and based at Watermill Theatre in Berkshire, was formed in 2016 as a touring company with a 50:50 gender split and the aim of combining Shakespeare’s texts and live music to create new versions of the plays.
I’m disappointed it’s taken me three years to discover the Ensemble, but what a joyous discovery! I will certainly be looking out for them in future. No matter how familiar you are with the plays, I doubt you’ve seen productions quite like these – they demand a lot from the cast, and these supremely talented actor-musicians certainly deliver.