Our TheatreCat Libby Purves reviews The Tragedy of Macbeth with Saoirse Ronan as Lady Macbeth now playing at the Almedia Theatre in London describing it as the Scottish play we needed!
Say what you like about star-casting and auteur-ish directors messing with Shakespeare, but sometimes a multiple Academy Award nominee has a trumpeted on a British stage – opposite one of our own nominees – and you think yep, worth it! Saoirse Ronan is a Lady Macbeth to remember for years: a steely fragile pillar of ambition who crumbles before our eyes and haunts the whole play. Yael Farber, the director who shook the Old Vic with The Crucible, has created a timeless arraignment of human violence which takes its own path but serves the text immaculately in every second of its three smoky, tense hours. If you can’t get in, see below for limited streaming dates. This is special.
And frankly a relief, after the last two major Macbeths in 2018 (I exempt the tiny Wanamaker one) because both RSC and NT versions suffered grievously from directorial vanity and a glut of plastic baby dolls (though only one had a Bex-Bissel carpet sweeper cluttering up the stage). I did wonder for a moment when Farber’s opened with a bare stage, a wheelchair, a tap on a standpipe, a wheelbarrow full of old boots, and a wheelchair (it’s King Duncan’s, he’s very doddery here). never fear. The fact that it is timeless and nationless – costumes range from kilts to battle dress to the witches in business suits – serves the magnificent cast in their passionate, often flawless delivery of the great familiar lines, made musical by Scottish and Irish voices.
It is rich too in subtle, well-thought-out psychological shadings. Like the moment when James McArdle’s nervy Macbeth dismisses his previously dominant, scrappy and organised wife rather brusquely because he wants to order the killing of Banquo and his son (Fleance played here as very young). She glances back, puzzled but obedient, like any woman thinking ‘this is new..not like him..what’s going on..?’. In the truly shaking moments when he falls into terrified hysteria at the coronation banquet, Ronan returns to a brittle celebrity hostess mode, excusing his extreme rantings at the (frighteningly sudden) ghost. It is with a self-possessed little giggle that she urges the company to ignore them. Her journey downhill is beginning, her conscience awakening under the veneer.
In many productions, she almost vanishes until the sleepwalking scene, but here, because it dwells within a long dream of horror for them all, she is rarely invisible on the deep always murky stage. She wanders as a guilty ghost through the killing of the Macduff children and her sleepwalking and deathbed are part of the battle scene, just as Banquo and the witches are always with Macbeth, joining in his horned, surreally bestial nightmares. The tap standpipe on the stage, constantly used by characters to try and wash away the latest blood, finally overruns so that the lady’s body lies horribly still in a pool of water. And there in the final moments Macduff and Macbeth grapple, soaked with wet, blood and guilt. Emun Elliott’s Macduff is tremendous, both in grief and rage, rising up to the churning, thrashing McArdle in equal power: the macho energy pulsing off that small stage from all the men is overwhelming, speeding up your heart and terror. Yet there is subtler meaning in every long-drawn bow of the ‘cello in Tom Lane’s score: it too is always there, played by Aoife Burke as a gentlewoman attendant, onlooker of this violent maleness.
Every tweak of the text and settings Farber makes is an addition, not an auteur-vanity: there is sense giving some lines to the witches and mercifully omitting the always tedious Porter with his clownish gags about brewer’s droop. Akiya Henry’s Lady Macduff sings gently to her children at the banquet, and later her voice again rises in high wild voiceless exotic grief for the wicked world. As for the bleak staging, with cast gathered at beginning the end around a lantern, the chief witch (Diane Fletcher, bleakly authoritative) asks for a second time. “When shall we three meet again?” And with awful certainty replies “Anon..” Farber leaves us with a sad unresigned certainty that human murderousness will always be there, somewhere on the edge of understanding, half-glimpsed in the mist.
Box office Almeida.co.uk To 30 October
Latest News: From Wed27 – Sat 30 Oct. the play will be
Broadcast live for five performances via the Almeida website.