THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Yaël Farber
Almeida Theatre – until 27 November 2021
Live stream: 27 – 30 October 2021
Thank goodness for live streamed performances. Otherwise you’d probably hate me for telling you that South African director Yaël Farber has come up with the most magically sinister, exhilaratingly imaginative production of this most visceral of Shakespearean tragedies, featuring a London stage debut by Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan that really does deserve all the superlatives already heaped upon it, that the whole thing is basically unmissable…but that, no, you can’t actually see it. Well, not unless you’re prepared to spend half your life on the Almeida website trawling for returns. But in fact you can watch it, even if not actually in the room. The live streamed performances are next week and I can’t wait to see it again, albeit on screen this time, as there’s so much to digest and revel in here.
Farber is a visionary but she needs a strong text, hence her vivid, earthy Crucible for The Old Vic eight or so years ago, and now this haunting, ethereal yet brutal Scottish play. At her best, she illuminates these male-centric scripts in exciting, bracing ways: having the title character appear and get sexy as Lady M fêtes him during the first letter scene is a lovely touch here; similarly, having the all-seeing trio of ‘Wyrd Sisters’, who never leave the stage, maternally cradle a deliriously distressed Macbeth at the height of his hysteria, makes a certain sick sense. Her visually striking but risible 2019 Salome was a disaster because it felt like a slick of good ideas weighed down by a barely-there text (much of which was in Aramaic, for God’s sake) and a ton of pretension.
That most emphatically is not the case with this partly modern dress take. Admittedly, the three hour running time made me blanche a little when I read about it (Macbeth is the shortest of the tragedies, and has been done sans interval many times so as not to break the tension) but strange theatrical alchemy is afoot here, and it is so spellbinding you barely notice the length. Actually, I was so invested and engrossed I was genuinely nonplussed when the interval came.
This is the Scottish Play as a sort of dark, vaguely hipsterish ritual (the monochromatic aesthetic of Soutra Gilmour’s set and Joanna Scotcher’s costume suggests something satanic going down in a particularly dark branch of AllSaints: refined yet raw, elegant but unsettling) yet it never feels gimmicky. It’s not without humour either: I’ve never seen such an alarmingly funny account of the banquet scene where Macbeth loses it upon seeing the bloodied ghost of Banquo while Lady M tries to hold the party, and him, together.
On the flip-side, the scene where the Macduffs are slaughtered has seldom seemed so distressing (Akiya Henry is a thrillingly fierce Lady, fighting like a tigress to save her doomed children) and it’s a stroke of genius, as well as making psychological sense, to have Lady Macbeth bear appalled witness to it, thereby precipitating her tip over into madness. Note the way that Tim Lutkin’s gorgeous but restrained lighting, outstanding throughout, warms up to a golden glow for the brief moments of domestic happiness in the Macduff household before the heavies move in; the rest of the time, the illumination is cool, atmospheric and sinister.
If some of the verbal poetry is sometimes missing, it’s fascinating to hear authentic Scottish accents speak the text (Ronan’s Lady is Irish, Gareth Kennerley’s Doctor is Welsh) and lending it new cadences and energy, while Tom Lane and Peter Rice’s omnipresent sound score – Aoife Burke’s exquisite mournful cello augmented by electronic sounds and instrumentation – achieves a dislocating, edgy poetry of it’s own.
James McArdle is magnificent in the title role, rugged, laddish and pleasingly ‘normal’ at the beginning but convincingly degenerating into a howling wreck, probably as dangerous to himself as to others. His embittered spitting out of the “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech when learning of his wife’s death is a fascinatingly unconventional spin. Saoirse Ronan’s terrific Lady Macbeth is a compelling combination of wraith-like physicality, nimble intelligence and formidable determination: there is a moment when you see her realise that all is lost, and it’s like watching a light go off behind her eyes. She’s steely yet delicate, and completely unforgettable.
Emun Elliot’s raw breakdown when Macduff learns of his family’s fate is an astonishing piece of acting, and Ross Anderson brings a quiet ferocity as well as a muscular nobility to Banquo. Diane Fletcher, Maureen Hibbert and Valerie Lilley, androgynously suited and booted as what used to be called the witches, offer an object lesson in stage presence. Michael Abubakar and Richard Rankin impress as Malcolm and Ross respectively. There isn’t a weak link in the cast, and yet, superb though everyone is, the whole is ultimately greater than it’s parts, moving in a satisfying cycle as thought to suggest that the central protagonists, and by extension, all of us, will never be fully free from the clutches of the Wyrd Sisters and what they represent.
As the play reaches it’s climax and the embattled, crazed Macbeth receives his just deserts, the round stage floods with water and ghostly light (reminiscent of the LePage Dream at the NT’s Olivier, for those of us old enough to remember it) and Akiya Henry’s wailing vocals reach hypnotic fever pitch, there is little doubt this is one of the most exciting and inventive versions of this well worn text that we are ever likely to see. It’s an absolute triumph, one of the productions of the year: three hours to sit through and probably years to get over.