Macbeth

William Shakespeare
Leeds Playhouse
The Quarry, Leeds Playhouse

Jessica Baglow, Tachia Newall and the cast in Macbeth Credit: Kirsten McTernan
Ashleigh Wilder, Karina Jones and Charlotte Arrowsmith in Macbeth Credit: Kirsten McTernan
Adam Bassett, Tom Dawze and Tachia Newall in Macbeth Credit: Kirsten McTernan

Despite its popularity, and the regularity with which it is staged and taught, Macbeth is a deceptively tricky beast of a play. For one thing, that popularity means that there have been endless attempts to reinvent it, moving speeches around and often attempting to expand on the central couple’s characters and motivations.

Amy Leach’s production blasts onto the stage with similar intent, using additional fragments of text at a few key moments to frame the action and build upon the Macbeths’ relationship. And from the opening pre-show soundscape and first glimpse of the striking open set on the large Quarry stage, there’s a powerful sense of grandeur and spectacle, with Nicola T Chang’s filmic electronica sound design underscoring the action energetically.

Energy is a keynote of the show all round. Characters run onto and off the stage as scenes thump into each other, and, almost throughout, the pace builds electrifyingly. Leach’s direction is characteristically both dynamic and clear, and the text has been shaped and honed to place the focus on plot. The cast of thirteen is uniformly excellent, and—another Leach hallmark—inclusive. As with her work with Ramps on the Moon, signing and some degree of audio description is integrally incorporated into the production, continuing the Playhouse’s commitment to accessibility for both audiences and performers.

Only occasionally does the BSL interpreting serve to slow the build of momentum, with slightly halting exchanges in some of the later scenes which might yet be ironed out with a few tweaks. But on the other hand, there are moments of great emotional weight which are delivered more powerfully thanks to the use of sign language; Adam Bassett’s Macduff and Tom Dawze’s Lennox, in particular, have a strong bond, and both give great performances.

Hayley Grindle’s set design is towering, with impressive use of a huge, sloping drawbridge to provide an adaptable upper level for the action, and tall steel rigging topped with moveable spotlights that flicker and roam the stage—Chris Davey’s work in this department creates the atmosphere impeccably. The lighting and set design work well to shape different spaces and to direct the eye on the expansive stage. The earthy dust around the fringes of the action fades into the wood panelling which the warrior thanes walk upon.

The ensemble cast quickly generates a sense of camaraderie and companionship in battle, helped early on by Georgina Lamb’s streamlined and thrilling movement direction. The sense of Macbeth (Tachia Newall) as an admired brother-in-arms is established well. Gabriel Paul as Banquo conveys a sense of openness and reliability, tinged by the niggling feeling that he’s been overlooked for promotion, and a growing suspicion of Macbeth’s intentions. Paul is a hugely charismatic actor whose performance evokes both authority and great humanity.

I’ve seen eerier witches, and the production perhaps hasn’t quite decided fully where they fall, between mystical unearthly creatures and misunderstood peasant folk uncannily in touch with the earth and its rhythms. But the performances, by Charlotte Arrowsmith, Karina Jones and Ashleigh Wilder, all of whom double in other roles, are as direct and compelling as the rest of the cast.

This is, then, very much an ensemble piece, to the extent that Tachia Newall’s Macbeth and Jessica Baglow’s Lady Macbeth do not necessarily stand out—though they are still eminently watchable in the roles. In service of the kinetic motion of the production, some key speeches end up losing some of the nuance and force of Shakespeare’s repeated obsessions. "Unsex me here" is powerfully delivered by Baglow, though it emerges slightly joltingly after a very different tone preceding it. And "tomorrow and tomorrow…" does not look back at Lady Macbeth’s death, but rattles onwards, developing the picture of this embattled, belligerent leader’s increasing isolation from the world as he is driven to ever more hubristic moves, in the belief of his own untouchability.

While some of the poetry might thus be underplayed, these are, it feels to me, deliberate choices rather than evidence of oversight or a lack of attention to the text. The show has been assembled with care and conviction, and the result is a heart-pumping, edge-of-the-seat production—highly recommended, whether it’s your first introduction to the play or the nth time you’ve seen it onstage.

Reviewer: Mark Smith