United Kingdom Verdi, Macbeth: English Pocket Opera Company (in collaboration with the BA (Hons) Performance Design and Practice course at Central St Martins College of Arts & Design), The Platform Theatre, Central St Martins, King’s Cross, London. 28.1.2015. (JPr)
Macbeth: Keel Watson
Lady Macbeth: Anna Gregory
Banquo: Simon Wilding
Macduff: Paul Featherstone
Malcolm: Alexander Wall
1st Witch: Grace Nyandoro
2nd Witch: Rosalind O’Dowd
3rd Witch: Grainne Gillis
Lady in waiting: Mai Kikkawa
Duncan: Will Ferguson
Director: Paul Featherstone
Music Director/pianist: Philip Voldman
Designers: Emily Bestow, Rosemary Elliott-Dancs, Katrina Felice, Harriet Fowler, Rosie Gibbens, Alice Guile, Rosemary Millbank and Roísín Straver
Lighting Designer: Alex Hopkins
I must have been in a bad mood last year because though I was able to see a typically enterprising English Pocket Opera Company (EPOC)/ Central St Martins (CSM) production of Gluck’s Orpheus and Euridice I had not enjoyed my first visit to Central St Martins’s ‘state-of-the-art’ new building in the middle of the massive regeneration of an originally ‘less-than-desirable’ part of King’s Cross. As most who commute into Central London on a regular – or even irregular – basis appreciate, London will be wonderful when it is finished … which I doubt it will be in my lifetime. So now knowing where I was going this year I had no trouble getting there and realised any problems last year were mine and nothing to do with where Central St Martins now is!
This year English Pocket Opera Company (EPOC) is again collaborating with young designers at Central St Martins to stage Verdi’s Macbeth. Eight students from Central St Martins’s BA (hons) Performance Design and Practice course (Emily Bestow, Rosemary Elliott-Dancs, Katrina Felice, Harriet Fowler, Rosie Gibbens, Alice Guile, Rosemary Millbank and Roísín Straver) designed the sets and costumes. The cast of Keel Watson (Macbeth), Anna Gregory (Lady Macbeth), Simon Wilding (Banquo) and Paul Featherstone (Macduff and also the director) have considerable experience. Philip Voldman is their music director who tirelessly played the piano for nearly two hours and successfully brought out all the many colours of Verdi’s vibrant score. One of the highlights for me of this performance was the participation of the enhanced EPOC Community Chorus numbering nearly 40. Macbeth has a number of stunning set pieces and the demands on the main principal singers is immense but Verdi typically gives the chorus plenty of substantial singing to do. When called upon they came into their own especially in Act IV with some heartfelt singing of the two choruses Patria oppressa (‘Down-trodden country’) and La patria tradita (‘Our country betrayed’).
Last year’s show was a ‘promenade’ through Central St. Martin’s spectacular new building with the audience following the cast and musicians who performed several scenes in different locations displaying the work of the up-and-coming young designers. I had been expecting much the same again this year and was taken aback to find an almost traditional Macbeth performed in the black box-like Platform Theatre. EPOC promised ‘an experience which provides an ideal introduction to the excitement of live opera for young and old alike’ Nearer its original promised running time of 90 minutes it might be ok but I suspect EPOC’s school performances would need to have selected their audiences carefully as – despite all the murders and spraying of fake blood – it could test the concentration span of most modern school-age children. Truthfully, much as I enjoyed what I saw because of all the emoting I could have done with a break during a performance played without an interval and extending to an almost Wagnerian length.
Macbeth was played out on the floor of the Platform Theatre with the ever-present chorus – often wearing black scarves – seated on two sides when not involved and everyone singing out when their time came towards the audience on raked seating. I may not be able to discuss all the designers individually but there was EPOC/CSM’s typical collaborative mix of youthful talent and artistic integrity involved even if there was not as much of the ‘originality’ I enjoyed last year with Orpheus and Euridice. It might have been more elaborate than just papier-mâché but that’s what a lot of the modelling looked like from horses heads on poles, to dangling stalactite-like dagger representations and what looked to me like the feet and claws of various animals hovering over the proceeding from time to time. It was never less than an enthrallingly atmospheric setting for director Paul Featherstone’s spare and forthright unfolding of Shakesperare’s plot as adapted by the original librettist Francesco Maria Piave.
Harriet Fowler and Roísín Straver were mostly responsible for the costumes of the principal singers that were either dark and military looking, especially for Macbeth, or elaborately ceremonial. On her first entrance Lady Macbeth was rather dowdy looking but was more glammed-up for her Act IV sleepwalking scene. Katrina Felice and Rosemary Millbank have King Duncan and his entourage enter all in gold like something out of a Bollywood film along with a large hamster wheel also fringed in gold. Behind this Duncan is dispatched and his murder – along with some occasional action at the back of the stage – was difficult to see clearly despite Alex Hopkins’s appropriately moody lighting. I liked Rosemary Elliott-Dancs’ grotesquely huge Banquo’s Ghost and Roisin Straver’s witches (with a hint of Goth about them) gyrating around a large magic circle (designed by Rosemary Millbank) in Act III. Their prophesies were accompanied by some chilling video puppetry and this just added to all there was to admire, as always, in this EPOC/CSM performance.
Keel Watson is a wonderfully reliable Verdian and he was a tense, brooding Macbeth always trying to internalise his emotions but never succeeding. He is physically imposing, prowled around menacingly and dominated proceedings with his darkly toned bass-baritone that swelled very impressively when intensely angry or in totally despair. Simon Wilding almost matched him in the smaller role of the Banquo, Macbeth’s sincere close friend who is destroyed by the machinations of the Macbeths, and his final aria was serious and sincere. Wilding’s final aria was suitably full of apprehension at what fate had in store for his character. Anna Gregory is clearly an experienced soprano with a powerful – if occasionally strident and unruly – voice but Lady Macbeth is a fiendish role for any singer. She could have been a little more extrovert in her ruthlessness and callousness, but was at her best in the believably convincing mental disintegration she showed in her final scene.
The other singers had some good moments but were often not as accomplished as the trio of principals mentioned above but everyone nevertheless contributed enthusiastically to the ensemble singing. If anyone caught the eye it was Mai Kikkawa’s Lady in Waiting with her occasional comments on the action – most notably about her somnambulant mistress – and she appeared to make more of her small role than Verdi possibly intended.
The English Pocket Opera Company was founded in 1993 by their enterprising artistic director Mark Tinkler and creates opera for, by, and with children and young people. For more information about all their projects visit their website at www.epoc.co and do support them one way or another if you can.