A successful Macbeth
“Sleep no more. Macbeth doth murder sleep.”
Macbeth can be the most problematic of Shakespeare’s tragedies. So many productions have floundered that we wonder whether there is some truth in the many superstitions that surround the Scottish play. There was Peter O’Toole’s Macbeth for the Old Vic way back when the blow up black plastic bouncy castle set moved comically.
Yaël Farber manages the unexpected, exciting direction which brings new insights to well known works. In recent years in London from her we have had The Crucible at the Old Vic and Les Blancs at the National.
The unexpected is the running time of this Macbeth, usually coming in at less than two hours twenty minutes, here at just over three hours and almost equalled by the longest productions of Macbeth at Shakespeare’s Globe.
What Yaël Farber has constructed is a Macbeth full of action and visual, visceral excitement. Still moments are rare as there is almost always something to watch. Along with the audience are the three Weird Sisters (Diane Fletcher, Valerie Lilley and Maureen Hibbert) who watch from the back of the smoky stage throughout the play when they are not speaking their ominously accurate predictions. The programme explains that the histories of the Wyrd sisters “are a reformed patchwork of myths and narratives…. who hold all destinies in their hands.”
It is always debatable to me what would have happened if Macbeth (James McArdle) had not met these three witches and the first prediction of Thane of Cawdor had not come true. They do have a lot to answer for. Of course not every director has an actor, Saoirse Ronan, to play Lady Macbeth who has an illustrious acting career going back to when she was 13 and now with four nominations for an Academy Award.
A lone cello plays sombre music onstage using the lowest of notes, a tall standpipe drips water and King Duncan (William Gaunt) is seated in a wheelchair next to his oxygen cyclinder. Someone empties a wheelbarrow full of boots, presumably gathered from the battlefield. Helicopters hover above like hawks. Smoke surrounds the witches who are clad in manly suits like power dressed female executives. Macbeth and Banquo hear the predictions. The messenger is dressed with a bucket of bloody gore and then he takes the news of the victory to Duncan and Macbeth is rewarded with Thaneship of Cawdor.
They are well balanced this Macbeth and his wife. As she reads his letter there is sinister portentous music and he arrives before she can finish reading it. Lady Macbeth’s “unsex me here” is very sexual and the avowal that she would smash the brains out of her suckling baby is icy cold hearted and indicating one who looks so beautiful but is a true psychopath.
Duncan the king is murdered but why, when he doesn’t look as if he has long to live? A coronation of Lord and Lady Macbeth takes place without crowns. Instead there are horns and a giant ram’s head in this primitive kingdom as symbols of power and authority. The men wear black kilts with a swagger. The murder of Banquo (Ross Anderson) follows, a horrific blood bath but his son Fleance (Jamie-Lee Martin/Henry Meredith) escapes.
After the interval, the scene is one of evocative wartime memories, a dance with Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again”, surely a play on the witches’ famous quote. Lady Macbeth in evening dress and her husband stand on a platform stage with a microphone on a stand. The ghost of Banquo appears bloodied but drenched with the blood of deepest black dripping down his face and body. Macbeth is terrified and distraught. Lady Macbeth strokes him as if he has post traumatic stress disorder. These are the images that stay with you in this elemental production of terror.
Akiya Henry is impressive as Lady Macduff and Lady Macbeth witnesses the murder of the Macduffs’ “pretty chickens . . . in one fell swoop”. I can still hear Akiya Henry’s tragic scream. This is used here as the reason for Lady Macbeth’s descent into madness. The witches serve to reassure Macbeth with their predictions about Burnham Wood and none of women born shall harm Macbeth. Lady Macbeth’s madness is a quiet affair as she lies down on the flooded stage. Contrast Akiya Henry’s huge mournful voice and the thunder of war and helicopters. The wood arrives and the branches part to reveal an army and the Macbeths’ short dynastic rule is over.
We can believe James McArdle as Macbeth being swept along by his unvaulted ambition and his wife’s ruthless decisiveness. Beware the hospitality of the Macbeths. There is no comedy in this Macbeth, the porter has been cut and his lines given to Lady Macbeth. We remember the verse less in Farber’s production but you will remember the slaughter. The characters here are victims of some inevitable fate as the ever present weird sisters predict and witness.
The Tragedy of Macbeth
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Yaël Farber
Jamie Lee Martin/Henry Meredith
Myles Grant/Dereke Oladele/
Emet Yah Khai/K-ets Yah Khai
Director: Yaël Farber
Set Designer: Soutra Gilmour
Costume Designer: Joanna Scotcher
Lighting Designer: Tim Lutkin
Composer: Tom Lane
Sound Designer: Peter Rice
Movement Director: Emily Terndrup
Fight Director: Kate Waters
Running Time: Three hours and 5 minutes with an interval
Booking to 20th November 2021
London N1 1TA
Phone: 020 7359 4404
Tube: The Angel
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the
at the Almeida
on 19th October 2021