“Macbeth” at Donmar Warehouse

Neil Dowden in the West End
22 December 2023

Max Webster’s superbly atmospheric production of Macbeth is ground-breaking in its use of binaural sound technology, but this is just one aspect of a gripping show that boasts stand-out performances from David Tennant and Cush Jumbo in the lead roles. This psychological drama is thrillingly brought to life with close attention to detail to reveal the Macbeths’ darkest, innermost thoughts and feelings, shedding fresh light on a familiar story of ambition, betrayal, mental breakdown, and civil strife.


Cush Jumbo as Lady Macbeth.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.


Macbeth, with its multiple references to unearthly sounds, is particularly well suited to the creation of an immersive soundscape, which is what sound designer Gareth Fry does here (as he did with Complicité’s The Encounter in 2016). The audience wears light, comfortable headphones throughout in order to enter this world – it is possible to watch the show without headphones, though the actors speak more quietly than normal (especially in soliloquies and whispered conspiratorial exchanges) so it is difficult to hear all speech, while the rich background aural texture will be lost. This is no gimmick. We almost forget we are wearing headphones as we get caught up in the power of the haunting drama unfolding all around us.

In this show we never see the witches, we only hear them chanting and cackling – which adds to their supernatural quality. Similarly, the ghost of the murdered Banquo (which of course only Macbeth sees) is not corporeally represented but we do hear his groans, so we are able to share Macbeth’s terror at the banquet while appreciating the bemusement of the guests. The soundscape includes a bell tolling, clink of daggers, spooky screeches, cries of pain, the chaos of battle, and the repeated flapping of a raven’s wings to chilling effect. And because the cast do not have to project their speech as normal, their performances are correspondingly more naturalistic and intimate.

Webster has made some judicious cuts in what is already one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays, so the straight-through running time of 100 minutes passes in breathless excitement. The wounded captain’s awkwardly long monologue near the start describing how generals Macbeth and Banquo have won the battle for Scotland is shortened (and just heard), Malcolm’s absurdly exaggerated account of his vices to test Macduff is omitted, and the battle scenes at the end are trimmed too.


Cush Jumbo and David Tennant.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.


Another, significant change to the text (which was also done in the Almeida production last year) is to give the lines warning Lady Macduff of imminent danger to her family to Lady Macbeth rather than Ross, hence making her slightly more sympathetic. Meanwhile, the brief Porter scene has been completely rewritten as a stand-up routine involving topical gags (Suella Braverman as Beelzebub) and audience participation (“Knock, knock…”). In a sense, it acts as an interval, a fourth-wall-breaking, momentary release of tension just after the murder of Duncan and before the relentless downward spiral of bloodletting it precipitates.

Rosanna Vize’s design is also stripped-down to bare essentials, with a monochrome set and non-period costumes (with the men wearing black kilts). The supporting cast (and musicians) stand watching from behind a glass screen at the back of the stage when not in a scene, as if they are bearing witness to the atrocities perpetrated by Macbeth, and sometimes stretch out their hands or beat on the glass to convey their repulsion and horror. Bruno Poet’s starkly dramatic lighting adds to the unsettling ambience, while Alasdair Macrae’s plaintive folk music for fiddle, pipes, and voice roots this Scottish play in its natural setting.

Tennant makes a compelling Macbeth from start to finish, powerfully portraying him as the saviour of his country who believes he deserves to be the next king of Scotland. We first see him alone covered in blood washing himself as a victorious war hero – and we last see him lying in a spreading pool of blood as a tyrant slain by Macduff: a precipitous fall indeed. With a broodingly intense presence, Tennant suggests a battle-hardened soldier whose moral compass has gone haywire, so once he has taken the first calamitous step of murdering his king as guest in his own home, he is prepared to do anything to keep himself on the throne. Effortlessly delivering Shakespeare’s lines, Tennant vividly shows Macbeth destroying his own humanity as he dwindles from honour to nihilism.

He is well-matched by Jumbo as Lady Macbeth, who seems to have diverted her unresolved bereavement at losing a child into backing her husband’s aspirations to the hilt. An indissoluble couple who confide everything to each other at the start, they later fragment as Macbeth leaves her out of his plans – we see Jumbo’s Lady Macbeth realizing with panic at the disrupted coronation feast that she is losing him and that the killing has only just begun. Driven to distraction by grief and guilt, her sleepwalking scene is truly poignant as we see Jumbo taking her imaginary child by the hand before blowing out her candle and drifting into the darkness.

There are also strong supporting performances from Benny Young as a dignified but naïve Duncan, Cal MacAninch as a wary Banquo doting on his son Fleance, Noof Ousellam as Macduff who turns his intense pain at his family’s slaughter into implacable anger, while Rona Morison as Lady Macduff desperately defends her children. And Jatinder Singh Randhawa brilliantly provides ad-libbing comic relief as the Porter, asking us, “Did you really pay to watch a radio drama?” – well, no, we got so much more full-blooded drama than that.