Macbeth at Chiswick Playhouse – review

Image above: Macbeth at Chiswick Playhouse; Beckis Cooper as Macbeth, far right

A production of Macbeth has just opened at Chiswick Playhouse with an all women cast.

That’s a huge gamble. Why would a London audience choose to see a Shakespeare play in a tiny local venue when they have the choice of seeing it performed at a much fancier venue with some of the nation’s top actors? (Yaël Farber’s production of Macbeth is on at the Almeida at the moment with James McArdle and Saoirse Ronan in the lead roles).

And why would you want to see an all-women production? What’s the point?

The point, lead actor and producer Beckis Cooper told me, with disarming frankness, is that she wants a chance to play the big roles. Ok I get that, but why might the audience want to see it?

“I wanted to see if we could do a version that gets past gender”.

What does ‘getting past gender’ entail?

“Can you look at the play and not see that they’re women, just focus on the characters?”

Apparently you can. It does get past gender and it’s a bloody good production.

I wasn’t sold on the idea if I’m honest, half expecting lots of swaggering and lowered voices like the stoning in Life of Brian. Not like that at all. Very quickly you forget about it being an all women production as the power of the characters and pace of the drama suck you in.

Image above: Thea Butler, Celia Learmonth and Flora Dawson as the three witches

It zips along. They’ve cut bits out (which bits I couldn’t tell you; I didn’t miss them) so the first half runs at 55 minutes and the second at 35.

The actors, especially Beckis Cooper and Emma Clifford as Lord and Lady Macbeth, turn in really strong performances, with nine of them mostly playing several roles. There’s a lot of energy on stage. It’s very easy to over act Shakespeare, it’s so highly emotionally charged and dramatic. Getting that sweet spot between lacklustre and overdone must be quite hard, but they get it exactly right.

I have been to Shakespeare productions where I have found my mind wandering to what’s for dinner or whether I need to pick up milk on the way home, but not this one, it kept my attention nailed to the job in hand from start to finish.

Image above: Emma Clifford as Lady Macbeth

Each time we came to a line like Lady Macbeth’s “unsex me now” so that she could do something so ‘unwomanly’ as kill, or “Are you a man?” taunting Macbeth in the way women have wound up their men to commit violence through the millennia by questioning their ‘manhood’, the audience was brought up sharp against the question of how we define the roles of men and women.

That question has never been more relevant than now, when we are asked to consider whether we identify as he/him or she/her or non-binary and exploring the concept of there being several genders.

Macbeth might have some good parts for women – Lady Macbeth and the three ‘weird sisters’ – but they’re not women you’d want to meet in a dark alley. Beckis reminds me that this was written at a time when women were being executed for ‘witchcraft’, ie. manifesting any behaviour which showed intelligence, creativity, eccentricity or deviated inconveniently out of line from what men wanted and expected.

Looking at the play from the perspective of women is a good idea – it does make you think about how women were perceived in Shakespeare’s time and how men and women are expected to behave now.

It doesn’t matter that the venue is small and the props are wooden daggers and crates. Probably closer to the original Shakespearean experience. (And Yaël Farber’s production of Macbeth with James McArdle and Saoirse Ronan is only live-streamed anyway!)

Image aboave: Claire Monique Martin as Banquo, Adenike Adeniyi as the Prince and Annemarie Anang as King Duncan

Macbeth is on at Chiswick Playhouse until 6 November 2021, presented by Players, a troupe who came together during lockdown. Director Lisa Millar. Cast: Beckis Cooper, Emma Clifford, Caroline O’Mahoney, Claire Monique Martin, Adenike Adeniyi, Annemarie Anang, Thea Butler, Celia Learmonth and Flora Dawson.

Book tickets through the Chiswick Playhouse website.

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