Neil Dowden in north London
14 October 2021
For one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays three hours’ running time may seem excessive, overstretching what should be a fast-paced thriller. Even the title The Tragedy of Macbeth is longer than usual. Yaël Farber’s slow-burning production at the Almeida actually includes cuts to the text – such as the bawdy Porter’s scene – but its deliberate building of atmosphere pays off in a complex, multi-layered psychodrama.
James McArdle and Saoirse Ronan. Photo credit: Marc Brenner.
The South African director has an international reputation for creating innovative, ritualistic, visually striking versions of classic plays, and this production sheds new light – or darkness – on a very familiar tragedy. It also benefits from two charismatic performances from James McArdle and Saoirse Ronan as the murderous Macbeths.
The setting is modern but with elements of the past: the theme is of a society enmired in a cycle of endless power struggles and brutal violence. The show begins with a tableau of every character on stage awaiting the start of the action, and then this is repeated at the end. But this time instead of the elderly King Duncan we see the boy Fleance wearing the crown and armed with an automatic rifle. As predicted by the witches, Banquo’s son has – presumably by force – ascended to the throne of Scotland. Their opening words – slightly but significantly changed from the original – “When shall we all meet again?” suggests an ongoing, doom-laden scenario. It’s a brilliantly effective directorial intervention that stays true to the spirit of the play.
The mood is unrelentingly grim without going over the top, while the violence is visceral. At the outset, a wheelbarrow crammed with military boots succinctly suggests the aftermath of a gruesome battle. The captain who reports on the hard-won victory bathes his head in blood rather than water. The execution of the Earl of Cawdor (normally off-stage) is shown as he gets a bullet in the back of his head. Banquo is stabbed to death after vigorously fighting off two cowardly thugs so that his son Fleance can escape.
Lady Macduff’s children have their throats cut in front of her before she is stabbed and then drowned in a water butt. In the final showdown between Macduff and Macbeth the two grapple in a shallow pool of water until the world-weary king voluntarily yields so that he can be put out of his misery.
Although Macbeth’s tragedy is still the main focus, there is much emphasis on the changing dynamics within his relationship with his wife. This is a portrait of a partnership that goes horribly awry, implying that the Macbeths’ childlessness has been a factor in their perverted social climbing. In the post-coronation banquet, there is some rare dark comedy with Lady Macbeth addressing the court via a dodgy microphone as a gracious hostess smoothing over her tongue-tied husband’s awkwardness and then trying to distract the guests away from his manic behaviour on seeing Banquo’s ghost – he’s a real party pooper.
Saoirse Ronan and James McArdle. Photo credit: Marc Brenner.
Lady Macbeth is presented more sympathetically than usual and her role – which shrinks in the second half of Shakespeare’s text – is here slightly enlarged as she speaks some lines written for other characters. Notably, she becomes the messenger who warns Lady Macduff too late that her family is in mortal danger, and it is strongly implied that witnessing the ensuing atrocity leads to her cracking up. She has of course persuaded Macbeth to go through with the murder of Duncan when he wants to back out, but we see her growing appalled by his increasingly obsessive bloodlust as they become estranged.
In the title role, James McArdle – one of Britain’s top younger stage actors – gives an unflinching and unheroic portrayal of a gruff military man swayed against his better judgement to aspire above his station where he loses himself in a welter of blood. He powerfully conveys Macbeth’s descent into paranoia and horror at the bloody path he has taken, from which there is no way back.
Four-times Oscar-nominated Saoirse Ronan gives an accomplished performance as a very young Lady Macbeth in only her second stage role and her first in the UK. Dressed in a cream outfit and speaking in an Irish brogue that stands out among the largely Scottish accents, she exudes a self-possessed feminine glamour and later a girlish fragility in her decline into guilt-ridden madness, though she lacks the ruthless edge necessary for this character.
William Gaunt is a notably frail, vulnerable Duncan, wheelchairbound and needing an oxygen cylinder. Ross Anderson is the brave Banquo turned horrifying ghost, while Emun Elliott’s Macduff converts unbearable grief into avenging anger. Akiya Henry is a touching Lady Macduff and also sings a moving song a cappella. Smartly dressed in dark suits and sober mannered as the three Wyrd Sisters, the omnipresent Diane Fletcher, Maureen Hibbert, and Valerie Lilley seem more all-seeing Greek chorus lurking in the background than sinister witches dictating the course of events.
Soutra Gilmour’s stripped-down design is non-specific in terms of period or place, in keeping with the show’s timeless, universal ethos. The mobile transparent screens that partition the action also provide eerie reflections. A fire is lit later on, while the standpipe where the Macbeths wash the blood off themselves floods the stage with water at the end of this elemental production. Joanna Scotcher’s costumes are largely contemporary but the military uniforms incorporate kilts as well as bullet-proof vests. Tim Lutkin’s dimly lit design is suitably ominous, while Peter Rice’s electronic sound and Tom Lane’s pulsing score also project a sense of foreboding. There is a lot of music – perhaps too much – including the on-stage mournful cello of Aoife Burke (who also plays Lady Macbeth’s gentlewoman), as well the inspired use of Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again” which adds a fateful irony to this well-conceived and well-executed show.