The Tragedy of Macbeth
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The Almeida Theatre's 2021 production of Macbeth, available online for a brief spring 2023 season, is a dark and savage reading of the play.
It opens with a graphic reminder that there's a war going on and closes with the hint of one to come, and all the male characters spend the play in remnants of battle-scarred uniforms. Macbeth's atrocities are less aberrations than business-as-usual by different means.
It is also a physically dark production. For much of the first half-hour or so, the actors are little more than silhouettes seen against rear lighting, and even when things later get brighter, it is as pools of light that fade into gloom just a few feet beyond the principals.
In this context, James McArdle's Macbeth is a thuggish professional soldier among soldiers. When Shakespeare forces soliloquies on him, the character clearly wrestles with the unfamiliar task of thinking as much as with the concepts being thought about.
That he turns out to be rather good at murder doesn't surprise or upset him as much as the discovery that the job never seems to be completed.
It is a strong performance that retains audience sympathy until the England Scene, when Emun Elliot's Macduff, taking a parallel journey into greater emotional depth than his past had prepared him for, steals the moral high ground and the audience's empathy.
Saoirse Ronan's Lady Macbeth is the weakest element in the production. With an accent and speaking style that wander from Scotland through Brooklyn to Southern California and an affect more Valley Girl than Valkyrie, she is difficult to take seriously in the first half of the play.
To their credit, the performer and director Yael Farber try to use this limitation by suggesting a shallow and untested Lady Macbeth who really isn't up to the project she joins so enthusiastically.
Her "Unsex me here" prayer is needed because she doesn't naturally have the strength to do what she wants, and we see the first hints of her eventual collapse whenever Macbeth himself wavers and she senses that she won't be able to lean on his strength.
Director Farber fiddles with the text in small and big ways. Major cuts include the Porter, the Witches' cauldron and the Third Murderer, but she also rearranges scenes and reassigns speeches to effect, introducing the Macduff family earlier, for example, to prepare our sympathy.
Her biggest change is making Lady Macbeth the one who comes to Macduff's castle to warn his wife and then witness the slaughter, so that the blood she later compulsively washes may be Duncan's in her mind but is Lady Macduff's in our eyes.
A little too slow-moving to be fully engrossing—a play that can be done in 90 minutes lasts an hour longer even with the cuts and without an interval—this is a Macbeth whose strengths outweigh but do not cancel out its limitations.
Reviewer: Gerald Berkowitz