William Shakespeare
Donmar Warehouse
Donmar Warehouse

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David Tennant as Macbeth and Cush Jumbo as Lady Macbeth Credit: Marc Brenner
Cal MacAninch as Banquo and David Tennant as Macbeth Credit: Marc Brenner
Ros Watt (centre) as Malcolm and Benny Young (far right) as Duncan Credit: Marc Brenner
David Tennant as Macbeth and Cush Jumbo as Lady Macbeth Credit: Marc Brenner
Macbeth Credit: Marc Brenner

Although there isn’t a tartan in sight, I have never seen the Scottish Play more Scottish than it is here. Almost everyone wears a kilt and speaks, like David Tennant’s Macbeth, with a Scots voice, that's except for Cush Jumbo’s very English Lady Macbeth (where did they meet you can’t but wonder). It sounds so natural, as though Shakespeare wrote it that way (which indeed was the way his new king, James I, himself spoke).

Max Webster’s production presents an almost monochrome world. A low white platform against black, a sliding glass screen at the rear behind which actors and musicians line up as observers, sometimes reacting, watching like us in this intimate theatre. But Shakespeare’s contemporaries spoke of hearing a play, not of seeing it, and everyone has to wear headphones to hear secret whispers and share thoughts. Though spoken live in front of us, we hear them in our heads along with every noise they make in sound designer Gareth Fry’s audio 3D with its atmospheric ravens and owls and ancient Celtic music creating atmosphere and matching the maelstrom in the mind.

This production opens with Macbeth kneeling beside what is, in effect, a lustral bowl, the warrior washing off the stains of battle, while we hear reports of his valour and victory on our headsets. As he proceeds on his murderous path, he and his wife will not find the blood and the guilt so easy to wash off.

David Tennant gives an intelligent and emotional reading of a man driven by one excess to commit another and losing control. Aided perhaps by accent, he makes familiar text seem new minted.

Cush Jumbo’s Lady Macbeth is dressed in white throughout. It is she who spurs Macbeth’s ambition but is visibly disturbed as the murders mount. Here it is she who gives warning to Lady Macduff. Her sleepwalking scene becomes poignant.

We don’t see the witches, we hear them in a susurration that seems to involve the whole company. Banquo’s murder is heard not seen and his ghost is visible only in Macbeth’s mind, but Cal MacAninch’ s Banquo must have seen the witches too, and Webster does let us see the apparitions conjured up on Macbeth’s second visit to them.

Such inconsistencies pass unnoticed given the energy and pace of the production, which has been cut to last less than two hours without interval. The stereophonic sound presentation isn’t just a gimmick; there are times when it does give an intimacy, and, though there were moments when my set momentarily cut out, it is beautifully clear and very comfortable to wear, but it does put the audience at one remove in a way that normal radio listening does not.

Macbeth’s soliloquies may be him talking to himself rather than the sharing of, for instance, Iago’s, but theatre is about communication, not spying, and this artifice became extra incongruous when Jatinder Singh Randhawa’s funny Porter (with a new text that is event appropriate) did address the audience directly, though heard through their earphones. There are obvious benefits of balance and quality with a carefully controlled sound system, but in a theatre this size, I wonder whether a similar intimacy could not be achieved without headphones and the sound score on a normal sound system.

Nevertheless, if you can find a ticket for a heavily booked show, these are performances well worth catching.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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