Nicola Wright

Review: THE MACBETHS at The Ship in Rotherhithe

The Macbeths at The Ship in Rotherhithe Not only has the Rotherhithe Playhouse proved a persuasive response to the crisis facing theatre in the covid era it's also creating some exceptional nights out.

This is the third show of theirs that I've caught in the last six months and the acting is as good as anything you'd currently pay a fortune to see in the West End, however it's this companies policy that you only pay what you can afford.

It's all the response of the artistic director Phil Willmott to recent surveys revealing a massive disinclination for the public to return to theatre with health fears and travel topping the list of reasons. To counter this, he is dedicating his time to presenting classical theatre in his local neighbourhood in a series of especially created outdoor venues which are heated and covered yet which allow fresh air in and out to reduce exposure to airborne infection.

For THE MACBETHS the company have taken over the rear courtyard of The Ship, a family orientated and very welcoming pub near Rotherhithe station. Heaters take the chill out of the air but as you would expect you watch with your coat on.

Phil Willmott has always had his own unique take to presenting Shakespeare. His aim is that it should be equally exciting whether you're seeing the play for the first time or know it inside out. He always pays great attention and respect to the poetry, imagery and ideas of the original play but often makes unexpected choices with the structure to keep the material feeling fresh.

THE MACBETHS is a good example. Anyone, missing the subtle change of title and expecting the conventional opening scene of witches around a cauldron, is in for a shock. This production opens startlingly and effectively with the Macbeth couple debating whether to murder the king as they stand outside his bed chamber. In this way we're plunged straight into the heart of the action as if it were a screenplay. From the first line “we will proceed no further in the business” we're gripped and subjected to a rollercoaster ride as the central characters, intent on their own trajectories, battle with unexpected obstacles hurtling towards them.

Macbeth is an army general confronted by three witches declaring that he will one day become king. As predicted the obstacles to his reaching the throne begin to topple but there is a sting in the tail. The witches predict that his family will never retain the crown once he has been killed and his frustration needles him into committing further crimes which make the end goal more of a horror story and a happy ever after.

Willmott has focused the action on the minutiae of the Macbeth's marriage and in this he and the actors succeed brilliantly in demonstrating that it is not the forces of darkness that bring destruction but rather the disintegration of a partnership. As Macbeth turns away from his wife, by far the sharper of the two, and begins to operate independently, events begin to spiral disastrously out of control.

Gabriel Hasstrup is a perfect Macbeth eloquently balancing brutal inclinations with a finely tuned awareness of impending doom. Megan Henson in an unexpectedly powerful Lady Macbeth, at first sight she seems better suited to tapestry than warcraft but like a young Margaret Thatcher, she reinvents herself, changing before our eyes from suburban naivety to ruthless villainy.

Fantastic though the central pairing is the production would not be as successful if it weren't for a range of wonderful supporting performances.

As usual Willmott has cast women in male roles but not only this has gone a step further and changed the characters themselves to women, so in this society female warriors have equal status with male warriors and it is interesting how this throws into relief issues of lineage and matriarchy.

Jan Olivia Hewitt and Beatrice Vincent bring fine detail to the roles of Banquo and Macduff, parts which too often become interchangeable in conventional productions. Eddy Payne is very good as the rightful heir to the throne. With his usual entourage stripped right back, we are afforded an unusually precise portrait of a young man thrust into responsibility before his time and adapting in order to triumph.

Elizabeth McNally plays a new role that incorporates many of the main characters into that of the Macbeths servant and this affords an unusually fine opportunity to develop a supporting character through the arc of an evening, beginning with the robust comedy of the porter's material she ends up with the wry cynicism of the lines originally given to the doctor who treats lady Macbeth in her madness.

George Damms also does a very persuasive job of rolling all the killers into one character known as the Mercenary. He too undergoes his own transition from unchecked bloodthirstiness to terror at the overwhelming odds against him.

As a stabilising factor to all this Michael Martin powerfully turns the role of Lennox into a politically astute doctor trying to broker peace amidst a civil war.

Hurtling through at a breathless 90 minutes this is Shakespeare at its sharpest and most finally honed; a satisfying a treat for everyone and another gift to the people.