Friday, 15 October 2021

Theatre review: The Tragedy of Macbeth (Almeida)

Yaël Farber has in the past few years added herself to a fairly exclusive club, considering how undiscerning my theatre bookings can seem: Creatives who are widely lauded but I've never seen the appeal of, to the point that I eventually decided just to skip their future work altogether. This is inevitably a rule I keep finding exceptions for, and in a year that's been short of major event theatre for obvious reasons, her new take on The Tragedy of Macbeth has, thanks to the London stage debut of Saoirse Ronan (I don't watch many films but I'm assured she's a Famous,) become such a hot ticket that the Almeida introduced a Byzantine new booking process especially for it. It also doesn't seem quite as risky a booking as some - one of my problems with Farber is the lack of any discernible sense of humour, and that's not often much of an issue where this play's concerned. James McArdle plays Macbeth, the Scottish warrior lord whose prowess in battle sees him promoted by King Duncan (William Gaunt).

But this backfires on the king, as Macbeth has recently had a supernatural visitation telling him he's destined for even greater power. Supported by his wife (Ronan,) he decides to speed up the process by murdering Duncan and usurping the throne from his heir Malcolm (Michael Abubakar). The Macbeths take power, but holding onto it means even more acts of violence, and soon they're both haunted into madness by what they've done.

Always a play with a lot of darkness in it, Macbeth lends itself to Farber's grim aesthetic, and although to a degree the production leans into the Scottish setting - the majority of the cast is Scottish, using their own accents, and Joanna Scotcher's quasi-military costumes include kilts* for more formal occasions - for the most part the setting is a vaguely modern, violent dystopia. The feel is that the rise and fall of Macbeth is just part of a wider pattern of relentless bloodshed. There's a warning that the front two rows may get wet, and I wondered if that meant we'd get a tribute to Jane Horrocks' Lady Macbeth famously taking a piss on stage, but it's water: Soutra Gilmour's set floods for the finale, but right from the start there's a tap prominently displayed for the characters to wash at - it's not just the Macbeths who get their hands dirty.

If there's a high concept at work here it's less to do with the staging, and more with cutting and changing Shakespeare's text to give the star turn more to do. McArdle and Ronan hardly ever seem to leave the stage, watching over the events they've set into action, and Lady Macbeth is given several lines that usually go to minor characters, with various degress of success. Most cleverly, she gets to take over Ross' hopelessly late warning to Lady Macduff (Akiya Henry,) and then witness the murder of her and her children. It provides a great bridging moment between the cold spin doctor who eggs her husband on, and the madness that takes her over in her later scenes. Great idea but missing something in the execution, as instead of hiding she stays in the middle of the action like a spare part, and we get the faintly ludicrous sight of the murderers chasing the family around the room while pretending the queen isn't standing right there.

Madness also ends up being the key point of McArdle's performance; when confronted by the ghost of Banquo (Ross Anderson) Macbeth doesn't just react with a momentary panic attack, you get the sense that something's mentally cracked permanently at that point. It leads to him mentally moving further away from his wife, coming up with his own atrocities and having sole responsibility for them. By the end he doesn't seem in control of himself, following the actions given to him by fate. This is a Macbeth that's more focused than most on the central couple, but the performances are strong all round and generally one of the best features of the production.

But if this didn't live up to my worst fears of Farber's work it's still a production where certain elements shine but the whole can be hard work. Yes, we were inevitably in for a bleak and intense journey into a bloody dystopia, but while the mood (accompanied much of the time by wailing and/or ominous cello) is effectively created, in the first half especially there's a real monotony of pace. There may be a lot of literal playing with light and shade (mainly shade) in Tim Lutkin's lighting design, but not as much of the metaphorical kind in the play's moods and funereal pace (Shakespeare's shortest tragedy still comes in over three hours even after cuts, including the entire Porter scene.) This finally breaks just before the interval, when the murder of Banquo is accompanied by flashes of lightning illuminating the Macbeths in the background, a downright arch moment that might have been too much in another production (Weez called it going Full Lion King) but was a needed touch of theatricality here.

The second half provides more variety, as well as for the most part dispensing with a couple of perspex screens - a neat idea that shows us what happens in locked rooms, but the supporting cast spend so much time plodding around the stage slightly adjusting them that they'd become a liability by this point. It's ironic that for all the text cutting, Farber keeps the much-maligned first half of the England scene: I always find that the vague back-and-forth between Macduff (Emun Elliott) and Malcolm only really makes sense in a production that's really established Macbeth as a kind of Soviet dictator who could be spying on anyone anywhere. And productions like this that focus so heavily on the Macbeths as a couple don't tend to give a real picture of the king as a hated tyrant, as he suddenly starts being described in the last couple of acts (some of the line redistribution really doesn't help with giving a picture of the world outside the castle either.)

And one thing I found puzzling from start to finish was what we were meant to make of the Weird† Sisters (Diane Fletcher, Maureen Hibbert, Valerie Lilley,) who are costumed like civil servants in suits with clipboards, dispensing prophecies as simple facts. But everything else about their scenes goes for the full spooky supernatural effect - echoey whispers, pagan ceremonies, appearing in dreams accompanied by Banquo's ghost with a ram's skull for a head. It feels like the production never quite found a way to reconcile the play's supernatural horror with the more gritty, human horror it was focusing on. It's another frustrating element in an evening where I wasn't, ultimately, bored - but this was as much because I was distracted by the ideas that didn't hold together, as I was interested in the ones that did.

The Tragedy of Macbeth by William Shakespeare is booking until the 27th of November at the Almeida Theatre.

Running time: 3 hours 5 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

*considering the cast is predominantly made up of Scottish men it's odd that nobody seems to have any idea what to do with a kilt when sitting down. Look, if you're going to make what men wear under their kilts a part of your national identity, there's no point being surprised if the entire audience checks as soon as you sit down.

†here spelt Wyrd Sisters because... I don't know, they thought the Terry Pratchett version was the original?

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