Review: Macbeth at New Wimbledon Studio

Macbeth: the story of a man driven by personal ambition to destroy his friend and leader, and seize the crown for himself. Sweeping aside anyone who gets in his way, he ultimately leads his nation into civil war…

There could not have been a more pertinent day to see Arrows & Traps’ production of Macbeth at New Wimbledon Studio. Macbeth isn’t an easy watch at the best of times, but the events of the previous 24 hours lent last night’s performance an extra intensity that nobody could have foreseen, and took Ross McGregor’s adaptation from pretty dark to full-blown horror. (A brief addition to the script referencing the shock EU referendum result met with a split second of laughter, until we all remembered it was based in reality, and not actually very funny.)

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza
Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza

The irony of Shakespeare’s play is that Macbeth isn’t a totally bad guy (though not a particularly nice one either, obviously) but rather someone who allows himself to be led onto a dark path and discovers too late there’s no way back. As Macbeth and his wife, David Paisley and Cornelia Baumann are genuinely frightening – he’s full of violence and rage, while she’s cold and calculating, and together they spin a web of lies and commit crimes that are increasingly bloody and shocking. And yet the revulsion we feel is not without more than a hint of sympathy; both characters ultimately break under the weight of their guilt, and their passionate relationship of the opening scenes disintegrates into one of tension, fear and suspicion. It’s in these moments of vulnerability that Paisley and Baumann are at their most compelling; the pain they feel is palpable and devastating to witness.

It’s not just the Macbeths that are out to scare us, though; McGregor wanted his Macbeth to be one that’s all about fear, and he’s got his wish. The three witches, played by Elle Banstead-Salim, Olivia Stott and Monique Williams, are part-demon, part-seductress, and their regular appearances on stage throughout the play remind us who’s really in control of events. There’s no shortage of blood and gore from the start, and a few jumpy moments just to keep us on the edge of our seats. And then there’s Banquo’s ghost…

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza
Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza

In the kind of original twist that we’ve come to expect from Arrows & Traps, in this production almost all Macbeth’s victims are female – most notably Duncan (Jean Apps) and Banquo (Becky Black) – as are his hired assassins. Seeing this violence both from and against women is a shock to the audience, hammering home the depths to which Macbeth is driven in his thirst for power. And it puts a fresh perspective on the relationships in the play – both Duncan and Banquo are loving mothers who share tender moments with their sons, while we’re also led to wonder about the exact nature of Macbeth’s friendship with Banquo as the play begins.

Like the company’s previous production, Anna Karenina, the show’s a visual feast; there’s smoke and blood galore, and some intense physical scenes from fight director Alex Payne. The climactic scene of Macbeth’s death is particularly stunning, with choreography, movement and music coming together to turn a moment of violence into something quite beautiful from which it’s impossible to look away.

The set is simple – just a table at the centre of the stage – and without the need for elaborate set changes, the production moves along at a rapid pace. The overlapping of some moments is particularly effective, as is the use of freeze frame during the dinner scene, contrasting Macbeth’s dark intentions with the merriment of his guests. And music is used to great effect to add drama, giving the play a very cinematic feel that seems to extend far beyond the theatre’s small stage.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza
Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza

This is the third Arrows & Traps production I’ve seen, and each time I’m surprised and delighted by their unique, inventive take on classic works. Their Macbeth is a political and supernatural thriller that’s as gripping as any episode of Game of Thrones (the body count is about the same, too), and reminds us once again of Shakespeare’s continuing relevance 500 years after his death. As depressing as that relevance may occasionally be.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Interview: Ross McGregor, Arrows & Traps

Earlier this year, they took on Tolstoy, condensing the epic novel Anna Karenina into a gripping three hours, and somehow making the story manageable without losing any of its complexity or intensity. And for their sixth production, Arrows & Traps are returning to their Shakespearean roots with Macbeth, which runs from 14th June to 9th July at New Wimbledon Studio, and opens the company’s ‘Broken Crown’ season.

Arrows and Traps, Macbeth

The Macbeth cast reunites actors who’ve worked on previous productions – among them David Paisley and Cornelia Baumann (Anna Karenina), Jean Apps (The Taming of the Shrew) and Alex Stevens (Titus Andronicus) – and introduces several new members of the company. Director Ross McGregor welcomes this mix of old and new faces:

“We’re one of the few operating rep companies in the fringe, in that we have a base of returning actors that we use in every show. It’s delightful to have actors from last year’s Taming Of The Shrew, Titus Andronicus, and this year’s Anna Karenina coming back to work on Macbeth alongside our new blood. This is great for me as a director as it builds a shorthand in rehearsal, but it also gives actors just starting out in their careers a home to come back to hone their craft on some classic drama. They know that there’s always a place for them in Arrows & Traps, and for me there’s no greater honour or compliment than when an actor asks to work with you again. This may seem like a cliché, but six shows in, it does feel like a little theatre family.”

In addition, the cast will work once again with Offie-nominated Movement Director Will Pinchin, who’s been a member of the creative team on all of Arrows & Traps’ previous productions. “It’s an honour to have Will back for a sixth time, working with the witches and ghosts for the show; he’s producing some incredible work in rehearsal. I’ve known Will for almost seven years, and I’d never consider directing a show without him now. We work well as a pair, he sees things I don’t, and I can structure his creative mania – there’s very little wasted time in rehearsal because each of us has a good sense of what the other wants to do. He’s also a new father, so the fact that he can still devote time to the company when he should be fast asleep is a testament to his generosity.”

Photo credit: Beth Gibbs
Photo credit: Beth Gibbs

Following on from last year’s gender-reversed Taming of the Shrew, this version of Macbeth is a gender equal production – in fact, in an intriguing twist, McGregor’s cast includes more women than men. “Macbeth is normally a bit of a sausage fest in terms of casting, so it’s great to be able to offer so many roles to female actors. Both Duncan and Banquo have been made into female roles, and we’re loving the new opportunities and relationship impacts that these changes are making. For example, in our version, Banquo is a mother. Lady Macbeth has lost her child. How does that impact the relationship between the two women? Is there more of a connection between Banquo and Macbeth than just friends? Exactly who is jealous of whom?

“Duncan also has been opened up in so many interesting ways. She has that Margaret Thatcher feel to her: a bold, brave women in a cabinet of men who want her dead. Plus the thought of murdering Duncan is made even more harrowing if it’s an elderly woman in her bed. I was watching rehearsal a few days ago and was struck by the fact that the murder of Banquo is almost an entirely female staged spectacle of combat, and it’s a refreshing thing to be staging, even in an age when we’ve seen it all. I personally think it’s been a boys’ club for long enough. Give a girl a dagger.”

So what can audiences expect from this new version of a well known play? “Arrows & Traps has always been about making commercial entertainment that doesn’t lose its intelligence. I want to make shows that sell (name a theatre director that doesn’t), plays that people will have heard of, but that don’t lose their intellect or beauty for the sake of making it easier or shorter.

“I’m always struck by a common response I hear from people when asked if they go to the theatre. So many people say “I should. I should go more.” Like it’s the dentist. Like watching Hamlet is the theatrical equivalent of a root canal. Why is intelligent classic theatre seen as a dry duty for most people? It shouldn’t be. If Shakespeare had to compete with bear baiters and prostitutes and merchants all selling their wares in the theatre, his lines had to grab their attention. They had to fly. It’s our company goal to make commercial theatre that is as intelligent as it is entertaining. It’s got to be a live event. It’s got to be exciting. And if it’s Shakespeare and it’s done well, you’ve got to understand what they’re all saying. My hope is that Macbeth strikes this balance – both serving the beautiful text as well as being a rollercoaster ride.

Photo credit: Beth Gibbs
Photo credit: Beth Gibbs

“I also wanted to make a genuinely frightening production of the play, because for me it’s all about fear. A standard GCSE answer is that Macbeth is all about ambition, and whilst that’s true, the word ‘fear’ is mentioned more times in Macbeth than any other play in the canon. It’s the story of a man who literally unleashes fear into the world. It’s a story where people believe in ghosts and witches and damnation and spirits. This is not our world, this isn’t reality, it’s a different playing space, a place where Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers and Norman Bates live. A place where things go bump in the night, and all our worst nightmares come and sit down beside us whilst we’re having dinner.

“Olivier said that if you don’t believe in witches then there’s no point in doing Macbeth – and I think he’s right. I think you have to create a world where witches can feasibly exist and take the audience on a journey into the belly of the beast. It feels like a horror film to me. Full of jumps and bumps and frights and somewhere in the midst of the darkness is a cautionary tale about the dangers of desire. But then again, and this is the genius of Shakespeare, Macbeth is also about a couple on the verge of breakdown, and the lengths that two people will go to in order to save their marriage. So there’s a lot to love about the text, and everyone is operating in a shade of grey. I didn’t want there to be villains or clear cut baddies. I think in many ways the Macbeths are more likeable than the ‘heroes’ of the story, Macduff and Malcolm, even though they do despicable things. It’s really the great-great-great grandfather of House Of Cards.”

Book now to see Macbeth at New Wimbledon Studio from 14th June to 9th July.

Interview: Penny Rodie and Davide Vox, Rounds

Rounds, which opens this week at the Illuminate Festival in Wimbledon, follows six junior doctors as they try to balance their demanding jobs with a life outside work. It’s a hugely topical subject, and while they’ve avoided taking a political stance, Resuscitate Theatre are hoping the show will open audience’s eyes to the pressures – both personal and professional – faced by junior doctors every day.

Rounds Image

“I don’t think there could be a more relevant time to be doing a show like this. I’m proud of the work we’ve done and hope that the production is able to convey to audiences what it’s like to be coping with life, death and the pressures of an overstretched NHS on a daily basis,” explains Penny Rodie, who plays Dr. Lucy Wright.

“Lucy’s a hard working overachiever who often feels that her best isn’t good enough. She found things tough at medical school so is determined to prove that she’s a capable and confident doctor. Her single-mindedness means she struggles to form the close relationships she’d hoped to have with her fellow doctors, and this leads her to make some questionable choices.”

Davide Vox plays Dr. Giobbe Poretti: “Giobbe is a young Italian doctor that moved to the UK one year before the events of Rounds, in order to pursue his career in medicine. During the show we see him facing the difficulties of being a foreign doctor in an English hospital, being alone and far away from his friends and family, and struggling to create new relationships with the other doctors that revolve around him.

“We’ve taken the decision to face the issue by purely presenting junior doctors’ everyday lives, rather than push a preconception on the strikes and political situation. This gave us the chance to focus on their human relationships and feelings. When does anyone ever think about their doctor’s everyday life?”

The show’s been in development for a few months, incorporating material gained from interviews with junior doctors and the actors’ own personal research. Davide interviewed Italian doctors living and practising in the UK, and says he discovered things he would never have known:

“Lack of time for family and friends (an Italian junior doctor gets an average of 2 or 3 minutes every two weeks to speak with their relatives on Skype, as they’re constantly pushed to work not only inside the hospitals but also on their own to try and solve the natural language gap), pressure to constantly work on ameliorating their English, and racism are still big problems for all Italian doctors. Of course I was also able to relate and bring in part of my personal experience as an immigrant.

“The biggest surprise was probably that, despite the fact that they are praised and extremely respected for their professionalism, Italian doctors, like all doctors coming from non-English speaking countries, are periodically tested on their language knowledge, no matter how long they’ve been living in the country. Apparently the English test is quite challenging, even for British doctors, and one small failure can cost you a full year of mandatory break. Foreign doctors are absolutely not supported and it just doubles the pressure they’re put under.”

Wimbledon Rehearsal (13 of 15)

Penny took a different approach: “I focussed my research on mental health problems amongst doctors and NHS workers in general, as this is something that has affected Lucy’s life and continues to do so. I learnt about the stigma that still surrounds mental health issues, symptoms and triggers, and looked at how this might affect what happens in the workplace.

“I looked at a few distressing case studies where doctors’ mental health deteriorated, and found that the procedures of the General Medical Council in these circumstances can often just pile more pressure on rather than providing the support required. I came away with a sense that these were caring people whose profession failed them.

“I hope audiences have empathy for Lucy’s situation and come away with an appreciation of just how tough it can be to get through each day, no matter how passionately she might want to help people.”

Davide hopes the show will move people. “I’d like them to go away feeling related to the characters we’re bringing on stage, understanding all the turmoil, hopes and dreams of these human beings. I hope they’ll also be able to get what it means to be an immigrant and how difficult it is to be far away from home, from your family and friends, no matter where you actually come from. How the choice of leaving for another place is never easy and it always come with a lot of sacrifices.”

Rounds is at New Wimbledon Studio on 18th and 19th May.

Review: Every Seven Years at New Wimbledon Studio

Apparently, it takes seven years to completely regenerate every cell in your body. So technically, you could say that seven years from now you’d be a completely different person. Theatre Bench’s Every Seven Years puts that theory to the test, following the relationship between Pam and Ralph over 63 years, from the ages of 21 to 84, stopping in with them at seven-year intervals. During that time, we see them fall in love, get married, have children, laugh, dance, argue, get drunk and grow old, experiencing together all the ups and downs that life brings with it.

Photo credit: Ashley Carter
Photo credit: Ashley Carter

I had high hopes for this play, part of Wimbledon’s Illuminate Festival, because the summary put me in mind of Patch of Blue’s Beans on Toast (part of last year’s Illuminate, coincidentally), which I loved; the two have a similar focus on memory and how it’s often the little moments that make a life what it is. And last night I left the New Wimbledon Studio – rapidly becoming one of my favourite fringe theatres – with the same warm fuzzy feeling I got from Beans.

Charlotte Baker and Ben Fensome, who wrote the show, play Pam and Ralph throughout their lives, subtly altering their appearance and body language with each new scene so that it becomes easy to forget these are two young actors playing octogenarians. They ride the emotional rollercoaster along with the audience, one minute laughing at each other’s accents (she doesn’t understand his Wiltshire slang any more than he gets her Geordie), the next coping with a crisis that threatens to end their marriage.

Director Scott Le Crass places the two inside a ring of cardboard boxes, from which they produce shopping bags, party hats and countless cups of tea (because, as we all know, there is no situation in life – good or bad – that can’t be improved by a nice cuppa). This simple design gives the play an unsettled feeling, as if Pam and Ralph’s lives are always on the verge of momentous change – which of course, in this play, they are.

The ingenious seven-year format was inspired in part by Granada Television’s Up series of documentaries, which has been following the lives of fourteen children since 1964 by returning to interview them every seven years. By just dropping in every once in a while, the play allows the audience to join the dots and decide for ourselves how its characters got from there to here.

The moments we share aren’t necessarily the big ones – we see Pam discover Ralph’s about to propose, for instance, but not the actual proposal, and there’s a lovely moment before her 50th birthday party when the two are alone, and she describes from memory every detail of his hands. Then again, life isn’t just about the big events; sometimes it’s about two 84-year-olds sitting in their kitchen in the middle of the night, drinking tea and reflecting on the years they’ve had together.

Photo credit: Ashley Carter
Photo credit: Ashley Carter

Every Seven Years invites us in to a love story that’s as messy as it is beautiful; neither Pam nor Ralph is perfect, but they’re perfect together. And the play is a heartwarming reminder that while a lot may change in seven years – events, circumstances, even our physical bodies – some things last forever.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: Data at New Wimbledon Studio

Direct marketing is an industry we all know exists, and which we probably all realise is not a Good Thing – and yet it continues to thrive. Andrew Maddock’s new play Data, part of the Illuminate Festival at New Wimbledon Studio, aims to expose a little about how the system works, and maybe make us think twice about the many ways we willingly offer up our personal details every day.


We all know the direct marketing industry is a bit shady, but it’s also easy to dismiss as a minor irritation that doesn’t really hurt anyone. And, let’s face it, it’s not the most glamorous subject in the world. So, like all the most successful marketing campaigns, Data appeals to our emotional side in order to get the message across.

Directed by Phil Croft, three characters reveal different aspects of the industry – each beginning within their own carefully defined space before spilling out as their stories begin to interconnect. At the business end, where data is bought and sold, are professionals like Gaz and Rachel, whose job is first to get us to part with our data, and then to use it against us. The play, presented in a poetic style, manages to explain this in relatively simple terms and in a way that keeps the subject interesting, whilst simultaneously acknowledging that it’s a hugely complex system with a multitude of loopholes. 

At the other end of the story are those most at risk from Gaz and Rachel’s underhand tactics – like Bev, a lonely, confused old lady who doesn’t even remember what happened yesterday, let alone understand what TPS stands for.

Not entirely surprisingly, this is very much a story of good versus evil – and just to make sure we’re in no doubt, there’s a parallel drawn more than once between dealing in data and dealing in drugs. (“I just want leads… I think them about them all the time,” is a repeated refrain.) Gaz (Sam Ducane) is an utterly despicable character, motivated solely by money and ambition, who clearly sold his soul to the devil a long time ago, while Bev (Jean Apps) is a victim in every possible way: she’s a widow, her granddaughter wants little to do with her, her son’s moved to Australia in unpleasant circumstances; even her dog’s dead. If this were a Comic Relief video, Jean Apps’ performance would have us all reaching for our phones.

Between these two extremes – and saving the play from becoming too clean-cut – lies Rachel (Helena Doughty), with an intriguing storyline, and, it seems, at least traces of a conscience. Even as she plans her marketing campaigns for maximum emotional impact on strangers, she’s concerned for her nan’s wellbeing at the hands of other marketers, and fails to see that she herself has been manipulated by Gaz into handing over information of a different but no less powerful kind. As the one character who we don’t totally love or loathe, it would be great to see Rachel’s story developed further, particularly the relationship between what happened in her past and her attitude towards her work. Which is not to say Gaz and Bev’s stories aren’t interesting; it’s just that Rachel feels like the seesaw that could tip the balance, for better or worse.

Data certainly succeeds in provoking an emotional response, although it perhaps lacks a clearly defined call to action. The play makes us think about where our own data goes, and explains how we can protect ourselves through services like TPS (though even these, we’re told, are possible to get around). But there’s a wider problem here, which the play does a great job of educating us about – and then leaves us wondering, what can be done?

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉