“Macbeth” at Dock X

Jeremy Malies in London Docklands
18 February 2024

“If you try to be in any way spectacular with it, you’re in terrible trouble. This is not a play you can do realistically at all.” Such is John Gielgud’s verdict on Macbeth, and I had it in mind while stepping through the exterior of this multi-use warehouse in the centre of Canada Water. An Audi saloon car is alight and a catatonic soldier crouches by the remains of his bicycle amid a tangle of downed telegraph wires, piles of oil barrels, and broken switchgear. Is this going to be an immersive installation in the style of Punchdrunk? It will fail on Gielgud’s criterion if it is.


Steffan Rhodri as Banquo.


Director Simon Godwin and adaptor Emily Burns are too savvy for that. The chaos outside remains at the back of our minds but the treatment on stage tends towards expressionist with lashings of blood. The witches clamber onto the stage in khaki Puffa jackets and are immediately febrile and terrifying. Their eyes flare as beacons of pain such that you think they might be on leave from a mental hospital or women’s refuge.

Voice coach Jeannette Nelson gives the weird sisters interesting readings on speeches that can so easily seem hackneyed and descend into jogtrot rhythms. The witches are not particularly otherworldly though their soothsaying convinces. But some of the cuts puzzle me. Wouldn’t mention of Syria (Aleppo) chime with Godwin’s modern militaristic setting and Burns’s stated aim (in programme notes) of being in dialogue with contemporary global conflict?


Jake Neads and Ralph Fiennes.


As the title character, Ralph Fiennes is wise enough to let the momentum in the soliloquies and confessional asides do the heavy lifting. It steers him through character development in which circumstances ignite his latent ambition. But when interacting with Lady Macbeth (Indira Varma) he is less assured, often fidgety, excessively rasping, and prone to over-telegraph meaning. Does he really need to point to his heart constantly? The devotion to Varma is convincing and he manages to suck air out of the whole theatre when being told of her suicide. It is followed by his defeatist “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow” in which he sees death as the inevitable outcome of a bad play but at least promising reunion with his wife.

Varma also stresses that she is up for powerbroking and intrigue from the off. As she reads the letter, she makes us realize that it almost frightens her with relevance to ambitions that have been troubling the better aspects of her character. But unlike Cush Jumbo playing opposite David Tennant in a version of the play at the Donmar Warehouse recently, she is not softened in our eyes by being shown to give a warning to Lady Macduff.


Danielle Fiamanya, Lucy Mangan and Lola Shalam.


The production is strong on pomp and ceremony. Fiennes and Varma sit within this but can move swiftly from exterior grandeur to psychological intimacy. Duncan (Keith Fleming) arrives at Inverness with an enormous retinue of bizarrely clothed courtiers. By no means frail, he suggests (as deliberate strategy) a corrupt lord mayor in a provincial town. Frankie Bradshaw is responsible for both the set and the somewhat outlandish costumes which show her responding to textual suggestions that the evil characters do not “fit” the roles they are in or aspire to.

The Donmar version had comedian Jatinder Singh Randhawa rewrite and perform the porter’s speech as a modern stand-up routine. Here it is simply cut with no seeming fall-off in impact thus disproving countless high school teachers who have told students that the scene deflates tension so that it can be racked up again.

Bradshaw’s set has the castle as minimal modernist with three marble staircases, bifold glass doors (the witches’ hands are shown stuck to them), and a sizable crystal water bowl in which Varma washes blood from her hands so prefiguring her obsession in the sleepwalking scene. On press night, she came within millimetres of upsetting bowl and contents which would have required the mother of all ad libs. So into character and so quick-witted is she that I would have bet on her to dig herself out of trouble. Varma might be playing a “fiend-like queen” but she has the charisma to evoke blind loyalty from husband and servants.

Like Fiennes (61), at 56 Steffan Rhodri (Gavin & Stacey) who plays Banquo is well beyond his salad days. But he is vigorous enough to make you believe in his determination to see his children and their descendants rule over Scotland. Lighting designer Jai Morjaria shows skill in giving Rhodri’s ghost a pallor as he appears not only during the banquet but at the rear of the theatre.

Similarly, Morjaria contrives to make the witches not simply scurry into blackout but indeed seem “melted as breath into the wind”. Later, he catches the moving Birnam Wood in silhouettes against the castle marble such that the English forces (they march down the aisles) seem to be coming at us through 360 degrees. The parade of kings features similarly contorted shadows. Christopher Shutt’s sound design is anchored on sirens and screeching planes (characters jet away from the court) which meld into composer Asaf Zohar’s bleak and jarring music for strings.

There is one cross-cast role with Rose Riley (a recent Desdemona in Othello at Riverside Studios) playing Menteith. She is another highlight and illustrates the suppleness of the verse by sounding relaxed and colloquial while still sitting on the pulse of the metre. I doubt if I’ll hear more naturalistic verse-speaking all year and it’s another illustration of what Nelson (extensive track record at the National and Shakespeare’s Globe) has brought to this production. There was no apparent distance between actor and lines that appeared to spring from her spontaneously.

As Third Witch (Lola Shalam) totters onto the apron of the stage at the close. She seems shellshocked in every sense. Her predictions have put all this in motion, but the momentum has grown out of her control. The cadences, ingenuity, and intelligent restraint in this production will remain with me. It is by Wessex Grove and Underbelly. The piece has also toured to Liverpool and Edinburgh, and will open in Washington in April.