Macbeth

William Shakespeare
Almeida Theatre
Almeida Theatre

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James McArdle and Saoirse Ronan Credit: Marc Brenner
Saoirse Ronan and James McArdle Credit: Marc Brenner
James McArdle and Saoirse Ronan Credit: Marc Brenner

As the National Theatre proved when it launched NT Live, there is a profitable market for recordings of theatrical productions. Given the current pandemic situation, which seems at best threatening and at worst quite terrifying, many more producers have identified a need and a market that stretches beyond the auditorium.

Technology and techniques have also helped to widen the experience, enabling those who are either unable or unwilling to attend productions in person to do so online.

Yaël Farber originally introduced herself to British audiences with a grim but intoxicating adaptation of Strindberg, re-named Mies Julie. She retains much of the same aesthetic, relying heavily on ritual and symbol, in this three-hour long production of the Scottish Play.

This evening really is Scottish given much of the critical casting, although the Irish also have a strong presence in the person of film favourite Saoirse Ronan making her UK stage debut as Lady Macbeth and Aoife Burke, who plays a mournful cello and gets a few lines to herself.

Miss Farber and designer Soutra Gilmour have created a production that is gun-toting modern, sometimes suggesting the present day with occasional echoes of the 1940s. It is incredibly atmospheric, viewed in an industrial setting, with reflecting glass screens, that instantly injects a climate of fear, ramped up by that cello and also dissonant electronic additions to the soundtrack.

Unusually, not only is William Gaunt’s King Duncan advanced in age and reliant on a wheelchair but the Wyrd Sisters are no spring chickens. This works well in an evening where the tempo is carefully tuned to a moderate pace but nevertheless constantly holds the attention.

Those who watch the live recording cannot help but be impressed by the quality of the meticulous direction both on stage and for the camera. While viewers undoubtedly lose out on the widescreen effects that are natural in a live theatre and the audience at the Almeida is invisible and rarely makes its presence felt audibly until they go wild at the final curtain, there are compensating advantages. In particular, this medium operates to present an acting and directing masterclass, with the opportunity to watch expert performers in close-up.

There is an occasional suspicion that Miss Ronan, who has spent so much of her career working on screen, may not throw her voice to the back of the building but with microphones and cameras, her characterisation of a passionate woman is so good that it can even compete with that of James McArdle, whose muscular presence as the titular antihero is never less than imposing but transforms as he is overcome by fear after ambition outweighs prudence.

Many theatre lovers will be loath to watch a stage production on screen from the comfort of their living rooms, even when produced live with all of the uncertainties that brings, but such reluctance would be a mistake.

This novel version of a gripping production really is a superb form of entertainment, allowing unprecedented insights into performance but also giving a good overall impression of the kind of production which deserves to sell out but might also be given a degree of permanence should the theatre record and then distribute the filming of one of these performances.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher