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Macbeth by Rafal Olbinksi
01 Feb 2015

English Pocket Opera Company: Verdi’s Macbeth

Last year we tracked Orfeo on his desperate search for his lost Euridice, through the labyrinths and studio spaces of Central St Martin’s; this year we were plunged into Macbeth’s tragic pursuit of power in the bare blackness of the CSM’s Platform Theatre.

English Pocket Opera Company: Verdi’s Macbeth

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Macbeth by Rafal Olbinksi


This production is English Pocket Opera Company’s eighth collaboration with undergraduates studying for the BA degree in Performance Design and Practice at CSM, and it provided an opportunity for these students to engage with many aspects of the design process and to impress us with their creative flair, and theatrical and musical awareness.

Dispensing with stage sets and relying on costume, props and lighting (a stunning design by Alex Hopkins which juxtaposed warmth and coolness most powerfully) to work their imaginative magic, the eight young designers fashioned the fairly small Platform Theatre into both the expansive bleakness of the heath and the claustrophobic chambers of Macbeth’s castle with equal persuasiveness.

There were some innovative and striking effects. Within the castle three tapered candles, suspended aloft like misshapen stalactites, formed suggestive motifs as Macbeth lunged frantically at the imagined dagger which lures him towards evil. Later their number magnified and their distortions augmented: grotesque tubers, their light-bulbs flashing erratically, they embodied the monstrous disorder of Macbeth’s own mind, one crown-shaped miscreation dominating his consciousness. The entrance of King Duncan was similarly startling and thought-provoking. Entering from the rear of the audience, bathing the previously shadowed auditorium and stage in a haze of glowing golden light, Duncan’s attendants held an out-sized, be-tasselled crown above his head. Turned on its side this glowing circle was both an emblem of ambition’s trivial pursuit of power and a symbol of inescapable fate: Duncan slept through the gleaming ring to his bedchamber, and certain death. Then, contemplating their murderous deed, Macbeth and his wife stood either side of the gilded ring which intimated the disfigured love which has driven them to their act of violence and folly.

Designer Rosemary Elliott-Dancs’ Banquet Scene was an arresting coup de theatre¸ which drew a gasp from the unsuspecting audience. Crimson-gowned ‘table-bearers’ — their culinary fare borne atop outsize Philip Treacy-style millinery — paraded and assumed their positions at the back of the stage square. When Macbeth’s ghost-strewn delusions commenced, they dropped to the floor just as a huge, red bunraku effigy reared up, its white eyes gaping, its gnarled hands grasping at the hallucinating protagonist. Equally entrancing and chilling was the appearance of the Apparitions: as each Witch stood, in turn, with the circle inscribed in the stage, lurid projections formed amid the blue glow, mouthed their mystical prophecies and dissolved to wisps of smoky light. The Kings who then process before Macbeth were graced with beautifully ornate masks, a sign to the ailing regicide of the nobility and inner beauty that he lacks.

Musical standards were high too. The star of the show was Anna Gregory’s Lady Macbeth — fittingly, given that it is she who, with the Witches, pushes Macbeth to his foul, filthy deeds Indeed, her costumes throughout intimated the unfeminine confidence of one who repeatedly questions her husband’s masculinity: the black smock, accessorised with dagger, of the opening act was ornamented with golden regalia upon her accession to the throne, but even in her decline she retained a suggestion of military mind-set — her nightgown evoking her husband’s silver chainmail. Gregory has a glossy tone, but she was not afraid to risk the occasional stridency to suggest the emotional extremes which fuel Lady Macbeth’s treacheries and lust. Her dramatic skills flourished in the Banquet Scene, and both her love for her husband and her unbridled ambition were evident in the Act 3 duet in which the pair plan the death of Fleance. Gregory demonstrated considerable vocal power and control: trills were crisply executed, pitch was well-centred through even the fiercest runs, and the tone was appealing and bright.

As her husband, baritone Keel Watson was less secure initially but soon inspired both pity and horror in equal measure. Watson is a fine actor and used his voice most expressively, switching from fear and vulnerability to brutal defiance, and judging the pace and tenor of the role skilfully. His voice can be both nimble and sturdy, and he used it with intelligence and discretion: Macbeth’s relationship with Gregory’s Lady Macbeth was progressively more persuasive and Watson’s distracted dismissal of the Doctor (Simon Wilding) and Gentlewoman (Mai Kikkawa), who bring him news of his wife’s decline, was saddening evidence of his own loss of humanity.

Wilding was strong, too, as Banquo; and his scene with Fleance (Tatiana Delaunay) was touching, a fabric chequerboard suggesting the inevitability of their fates. Tenor Paul Featherstone was impressive as Macduff — all imperiousness and indignation — and interacted well during the more conversational scenes. His Act 4 aria, in which he declares his determination to avenge the deaths of his wife children was emotionally affecting, and revealed a tenor of appealing power and which can carry emotion, although it was unfortunate that the pitch so often strayed upwards.

The three Witches — Grace Nyandoro, Rosalind O’Dowd and Grainne Gillis — were fairly successful in overcoming Verdi’s rather tame, ‘rum-te-tum’ musical evocation of their evil. Three ladders adorned the first appearance of the heath, presumably suggesting a descent into the Hadean realms and the psychological hell from which Macbeth will struggle futilely to escape. Black-masked, the Witches moved with menace; intonation took a little while to settle, but the female voices were individually characterised and blended pleasingly.

The EPOC community chorus, cloaked in shapeless, colourless gowns and hoods for much of the performance, had their moment as the ‘trees of Birnam Wood’: ultimately their natural-toned bunting foliage ‘buried’ the defeated Macbeth — the last of the production’s many economical and engaging visual gestures.

I enjoyed this performance immensely. The lighting scheme, design details, strong musical qualities and theatrical immediacy made the two hours fly by. Much of this success was undoubtedly due to Musical Director and pianist, Philip Voldman, whose sterling accompaniment was startlingly alert to the dramatic intent and mood of each scene. Voldman needed every ounce of his considerable stamina and skill to galvanise the entire cast to aspire so high. Primary school children attending the schools’ matinee performances may find that a lot is demanded of them, however, given that there is no interval. But, once again EPOC and the students of CSM have shown that opera does not need grand budgets to reach out to its audience: just passion, resourcefulness and creative discipline.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Macbeth — Keel Watson, Lady Macbeth — Anna Gregory, Banquo/Doctor — Simon Wilding, Macduff — Paul Featherstone, 1st Witch — Grace Nyandoro, 2nd Witch — Rosalind O’Dowd, 3rd Witch — Grainne Gillis, Malcolm — Alexander Wall, Lady in Waiting — Mai Kikkawa, Duncan — Will Ferguson, Fleance — Tatiana Delauney; Director — Paul Featherstone, Musical Director/Pianist — Paul Voldman, Lighting Designer — Alex Hopkins, Make Up — Helena Jopling and Georgia Hallgalley.

Designers: Emily Bestow, Rosemary Elliott-Dancs, Katrina Felice, Harriet Fowler, Rosie Gibbens, Alice Guile, Rosemary Millbank, Roísín Straver. Central St. Martin’s, London, Wednesday, 28th January 2015.

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