Monday 2 February 2015

Macbeth by design

Keel Watson (Macbeth) and Banquo's Ghost - Macbeth - English Pocket Opera Company - Photo Emily Bestow
Keel Watson (Macbeth) and Banquo's Ghost
English Pocket Opera Company - Photo Emily Bestow
Verdi Macbeth; English Pocket Opera Company, Central St Martin's; Platform Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 31 2015
Vibrant performances and imaginative design

English Pocket Opera Company (EPOC) is a group which creates opera for, by and with children and young people. For the last 7 years they have done an annual project with the BA (Hons) Performance Design and Practice course at Central St. Martin's in which students from the course design an opera. This year the opera was Verdi's Macbeth, presented at the Platform Theatre at Central St. Martins. I saw the Saturday matinee (31 January 2015) which was one of the performances open to the public, whilst the other performances were for schools. The production was directed by Paul Featherstone, who also sang Macduff, with Keel Watson as Macbeth, Anna Gregory as Lady Macbeth, Simon Wilding as Banquo, Grace Nyandoro, Rosalind O'Down and Grainne Gillis as the witches, Alexander Wall as Malcolm, Mai Kikkawa as the lady in waiting, Will Ferguson as Duncan and T. Delaunay as Fleance. Accompanying the opera on the piano was musical director Philip Voldman. The production also features the 30 strong EPOC Community Chorus.

The student designers whose work featured in the show were Emily Bestow, Rosemary Elliott-Dancs, Katrina Felice, Harriet Fowler, Rosie Gibbens, Alice Guile, Rosemary Millbank and Roisin Staver. The lighting designer as Alex Hopkins.

Macbeth - English Pocket Opera Company - Photo Joshua Hayes
English Pocket Opera Company - Photo Joshua Hayes
The opera was sung in Andrew Porter's sympathetic English translation, one which cleverly manages to work in some of the best known phrases from the play whilst always remaining approachable and never arcane or arch. The opera was trimmed down and performed without an interval, lasted around an hour and three quarters. The audience was very much a family one, with lots of children running around the cafe area before hand, and as far as I could see remaining entranced throughout the production.

The Platform Theatre is a large rectangular black box, presented with raked seating at on end. The stage area was bare, just a black curtains as backdrop, a red floor and a stepladder. As the music started, ladders descended from the flies and on came the witches. This being a reduced version of the score, there was no chorus of witches just the three soloists, Grace Nyandoro, Rosalind O'Down and Grainne Gillis.

The whole design was centred around objects, there was no scenery as such instead ladders, and a myriad of lights descended from the flies, Duncan arrived in a fringed and illuminated palanquin which, turned on its side became ceremonial backdrop and entrance to his chamber, the food in the banquet was worn, in the form of huge plate-shaped hats piled with items, by members of the chorus, prior to Banquo's murder he and Fleance were playing chess and then his body was wrapped in the huge blanket-like chessboard to be dragged off. The results combined practicality and imagination, with the most striking images being that of Banquo's ghost which was a giant puppet manipulated by Simon Wilding who played Banquo, and the vision scene in which the three spirits, sung by the witches, consisted of alarming projections on the backdrop.

Anna Gregory (Lady Macbeth, Sleep Walking Scene) -  Macbeth - English Pocket Opera Company - Photo Joshua Hayes
Anna Gregory - Sleep Walking Scene
English Pocket Opera Company
Photo Joshua Hayes
The whole performance was centred around Keel Watson's towering account of the title role. Watson was a relatively late addition to the cast, and was thrilling and mesmerising. Singing with lovely evenness of tone and a ringing top, with no sense of strain the bass-baritone really took control of the role and made me long to see him performing to in a larger scale version. The gave us finely shaped, well filled phrases and was not scared to singing quietly too. He really made you believe that Macbeth was in thrall to the witches. A big man, Watson knew when to do nothing on stage and he has a powerfully expressive face which he used to the full. His English diction was clarity itself.

Anna Gregory's Lady Macbeth was as compelling partner in crime. Gregory has a large, gleaming spinto voice and clearly has a future in the dramatic soprano repertory. But Lady Macbeth requires more than that, even in Verdi's 1865 revision, and Gregory showed that her voice could still move round the fioriture at speed, and reduce to a beautiful quiet in the delicate moments. There was the odd moment when her voice threatened to be a little wayward and her passage-work was not always ideally clean, but her sleepwalking scene was beautifully done and finely controlled, and her big moments were simply thrilling. Like Watson, she really took control of the stage and formed a power duo with Watson.

If none of the other soloists quite managed the wattage that Watson and Gregory did, they provided sterling support and some finely sung moments. Simon Wilding was a powerfully sung Banquo, giving us some well shaped phrases, whilst Paul Featherstone (who also directed) was moving in Macduff's aria. The three witches were vivid in their theatricality, but had not quite manage to coordinate stage action and music in the absence of a visible conductor, and their diction was put to shame by that of the rest of the cast. But they were full of vibrant drama, and they were struggling under the fact that Verdi's music for the witches, when reduced onto piano, sounded trite to the point of ridiculous despite Philip Voldman's best efforts.

The Witches - Macbeth - English Pocket Opera Company - photo Emily Bestow
The Witches
Photo Emily Bestow
The EPOC Community Chorus made a strong impression in their chorus contributions, singing with lusty strength and admirable confidence.

I suspect that the theatre is a difficult place to light, especially on a budget and occasionally faces were not ideally lit. Featherstone's production was admirably straight-forward, and the costumes were all vaguely medieval (tunics for the men) which chimed in with the ethos of the production. This seemed to be to present the opera in as direct and imaginative way as possible, and in this they succeeded. Philip Voldman coped admirably with the piano reduction of the score, and created some moments of real music, as well as directing the EPOC Community Chorus when necessary.

To return to an old topic (see my article The Total Experience). The bar/cafe at the Platform Theatre seemed to have a very odd idea of what music was suitable for pre-performance, which was hardly getting adults and children ready for an afternoon with Verdi.

I went along to the performance with an artist friend, and we  both found much to enjoy in the production. Not everything worked perfectly, but there was a lovely feeling of imagination and practicality in all of the designs and this, combined with the gripping performance from the leads, produced a memorable afternoon in the theatre.
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