The Tragedy of Macbeth

William Shakespeare
Almeida Theatre
Almeida Theatre

Saoirse Ronan as Lady Macbeth and James McArdle as Macbeth Credit: Marc Brenner
Saoirse Ronan as Lady Macbeth Credit: Marc Brenner
The three witches Credit: Marc Brenner

The director Yael Farber’s much-anticipated production of Macbeth takes us into a very gloomy world. It opens in semi-darkness with the actors arriving like refugees to a stage of swirling mist. During the performance, that association with the cruel consequences of war is made more than once.

As they leave the stage, one of them pushes a wheelbarrow full of boots that are emptied in a great heap, the remnants of the dead. Soon a character brings to the front of the stage a bucket of blood which he smears across his body. This play begins and ends with war and, in between, there are the shocking murders of children with their mother.

Yael Farber intensifies the grimness of the context with an unsettling soundscape, occasional mournful singers and a cellist who plays on stage through much of the performance. Above them at times can be heard helicopters. If all that doesn't convince you that things are grim, then the words of Shakespeare will, if you can hear them. The stranger sitting beside me said he couldn't in the early scenes, especially when characters spoke with their back to the audience.

But there can have been no problem with hearing William Gaunt as Duncan speaking clearly with measured authority, often from a wheelchair, with the character's oxygen tank and mask nearby.

His death is the beginning of Macbeth’s (James McArdl) increasing guilt and paranoia that escalates with the killing of his comrade Banquo (Ross Anderson) into an epic nervous breakdown. From this point on, he is rarely able to calm himself, though at the banquet he raises a laugh by chatting to the cellist.

The three witches dressed in suits, looking more like company lawyers, never leave the stage, observing the unfolding tragedy, offering on occasions advice through prophecies and warnings. Concerned at Macbeth’s disintegrating mind, one of them cradles him in her arms, rocking him from side to side. When he starts running around with an assault rifle, they take it away from him in concern perhaps for the safety of the audience. This leaves him with a very small knife with which to fight Macduff as they roll around together on a stage increasingly filled with water.

If the men take an overheated approach to the language, Saoirse Ronan’s Lady Macbeth begins in a calmer, lighter vein, skimming across the words till there emerges a more serious recognition of the horror unfolding. This leads her to pop round to the Macduff's to warn Lady Macduff of the approaching killers. Witnessing the murders and covered in their blood, she tries to wash it out.

Although Yael Farber cuts a fair bit out of this the shortest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, including the Porters scene and unfortunately part of the words spoken by the child of Macduff, the play still runs, at over three hours, to a good sixty minutes longer than normal. Yet its story and its characters, with the exception of Duncan, seem remote, distant.

There are always moments that impress, as for instance when Banquo is being murdered, we catch sight in the background to the left of the stage the tableau of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth holding each other in the pose of old-style dancers lit in luxurious costumes, a reminder of how wealth and privilege can calmly celebrate while atrocities are committed in its name.

But too much of this production distracts from the language, swamps the story, distances us from the characters. It’s overcooked in a way that can ruin the appetite, tire the spirit and leave you weary by the end. Yael Farber should give Shakespeare more space to breathe.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna