Image of a woman standing in an underground car park.

October 10, 2019, by Peter Kirwan

Macbeth @ Manchester Royal Exchange

For about half an hour before the Royal Exchange’s Macbeth started, the atrium of the Royal Exchange was rocked by rumbles and explosions, which became increasingly unsettling as the start time drew near. Christopher Haydon’s production – especially in Elena Peña’s sound design – sought to set up a world rent asunder by war long before the actors entered the stage. Two soldiers arrived and were shot dead by machine gun fire; then, as a medic tended to the bodies, another soldier slid down a rope from an unseen helicopter and shot the medic dead. The two bodies then came back to life, joined their rescuer, and became the three witches. It was an odd conceit, dividing the three, that was never revisited; an issue symptomatic of a production with lots of great ideas, but little connecting them.

This was, the production’s programme suggested, possibly the first professional, mixed-gender production of Macbeth to make Macbeth a woman. Lucy Ellinson played Macbeth as a butch lesbian, consistently seen – with one important exception – with shorn hair, loose combat trousers, heavy boots, and military vests and jackets. From her first appearance, Macbeth shared the lairy, performative masculinity of other soldiers, swaggering about the stage and taking up space. The cockiness of this Macbeth – especially in the final act – was notable, Macbeth seemingly at pains throughout to unsure that her strength and confidence went unquestioned. As such, the exchange between Macbeth and Ony Uhiara’s Lady Macbeth: ‘I dare do all that may become a man’; ‘When you durst do it, then you were a man’ rang out as significant, Macbeth’s wife accusing her of defaulting on the masculinity that defined her butch persona.

The premise of two women against the world – especially after the death of Queen Duncan (Alexandra Mathie), isolated against a ruling class entirely composed of men – had a great deal of promise; however, there was little discernible chemistry between the lead pair. Their physical intimacy was limited to a couple of pecks on the lips, and despite the relatively full text, Uhiura seemed rarely present, perhaps as a result of the over-indulgent Witch scenes that sucked up a lot of stage time. The sexuality of the pair was commendably treated as normal within the contemporary world of the play, but apart from a gloriously frustrated scream by Lady Macbeth at the end of the banquet scene, the production seemed uninterested in the character, or in exploring any of the dynamics specific to a power couple of gay women.

Instead, Haydon and designer Oli Townsend worked on filling the production with visual and tonal variety, to appropriately varying effect. The Witches had no consistent agenda, but were most often portrayed as playful and sarcastic, regularly mocking themselves by drawling their lines and following their pronouncements with a childish ‘Ooooooooh’. Hecate was cut; an interesting choice, as this portrayal of the witches would have been perfect for her to tell off. Early on, the witches indulged in a little audience interaction, pausing on ‘There to meet with …..’ until an audience member finally filled in the line to the Witches’ applause (a choice that seemed a little patronising in the context of a schools’ matinee), and then picking out a plant in the audience who was rustling popcorn to subject them to some telekinetic torture (much more effective).

The difficulty with the Witches was that none of their bits of fun went anywhere. Their initial introduction as victims/perpetrators of violence was subsequently ignored; the playfulness with the audience disappeared; and the mocking of their own lines as well as of Macbeth diminished the menace they had when they appeared as the Macbeths’ servants. The choice to make an audience member say Macbeth’s name potentially implied that they really were just agents of chaos, and Macbeth an arbitrarily chosen victim of their whims, but it would have been nice to see some further exploration of what that meant for their interactions with Macbeth; instead, they simply disappeared silently after bringing on the seven kings.

The costumes were generally contemporary, with Duncan and Macbeth’s royal get-up rooted in early twentieth-century military commander trappings. Alarum bells were awooga alarms that sounded throughout the metallic frame of the theatre, centred around a seven-pointed star made out of a grille over water that bubbled (and hubbled) at the start of the production, but that again had little consistency beyond the aesthetic, used interchangeably as drinking water, drowning water, or a cauldron. The final battle saw soldiers in fatigues filing in and out of the auditorium, giving the impression of urban warfare. More effective was the ambush of Banquo, with the two murderers putting on hi-vis jackets and setting up a ‘Men at Work’ roadblock; while Lennox (Nima Taleghani) distracted Banquo (Theo Ogundipe), the murderers strolled around and stove in his legs with heavy mallets.

In sequences such as this, the production showed its strength in inventive set-pieces. The standout was the banquet scene, staged as a bizarre party with cake on a table in the centre; a game of musical chairs around the edges, and dancing. Macbeth, for the only time, wore a red dress for this scene, and fraternised with her nobles who were all in a variety of fancy dress. In a nice coup, Banquo revealed himself to have been wearing a lifesize bear costume, while the waiting servants/Witches lifted the lids on the platters they were holding to reveal a trio of Banquo heads. The bear chased Macbeth around and under the table, emerging with its head back on, and Lady Macbeth pulled off the head to reveal a different actor, a simple but very effective trick, that discombobulated Macbeth until Banquo erupted again through the middle of the table and stared down his nemesis. Ellinson nailed the combination of fright and hysteria; after Banquo left, she put a table-cloth over her head and started making ghost noises at the guests, leaving Lady Macbeth to usher the guests out in despair.

Rachel Denning made an excellent showing in two scenes, as the Porter and Lady Macduff. The Porter scene was again stylistically incoherent; it began with an apparent electrical short and the Porter emerging as a stage manager, looking up at the lights while the house lights came up; that disruption to the diegesis had no relevance to what followed, however. Denning gave a version of the Porter’s speech that harrassed several members of the audience for being property developers or businessmen, modern versions of the sinners that she wished to escort to hell. The speech was funny and precise, but was greeted by absolute silence at the performance I attended; my sense is that it was too dense and poetic, folding in Morrissey quotes and circuitous allusions rather than speaking plainly to its audience. More successful was the scene at the Macduffs’ home; while the child actor playing the son was inaudible from where I sat in the upper gallery, Denning gave a moving performance of grief while Daon Broni’s Ross was forced to kneel and watch by Lennox. When one of the murderers plunged a knife into the crying baby she was holding, silencing it immediately, there were several shrieks around the auditorium.

The other performances were confident. Ogundipe was a lively Banquo, much bigger than Macbeth but her match in terms of bravado. A beautifully choreographed sequence saw him sparring with Fleance (Ayanda (Yandass) Ndlovu), with Ndlovu showing off impressive acrobatic skills as the pair parried, flipped, and high-kicked with a smoothness that showed their close bond. The fight choreography was less impressive in the somewhat lumbering final fight between Macbeth and Macduff (Paul Hickey), during which Macduff paused to rather bathetically tie his shoelace. The warriors were contrasted with the polite, clean Malcolm (David Hartley) and Ross. Lennox became an interesting and sinister lackey, emerging from the shadows to join the Murderers and forcing Ross to watch as Macduff’s family were slaughtered.

Ultimately, all of the elements of aesthetic interest failed to create something greater than the sum of the production’s parts. Ellinson’s Macbeth was always captivating, albeit the cockiness and confidence with which she handled the banquet scene, the encounter with the visions (which she spoke herself, after downing potion provided by the Witches), and the final fight, overshadowed the subtler exploration of Macbeth’s vulnerabilities. In a pointed emphasis, she cried at Macduff ‘Damned be him that first cries hold, enough’, suggesting in the final reckoning that gender was still at stake for her. In a bizarrely undramatic choice, though, Macbeth clearly outclassed Macduff on the battlefield, disarming him and beating him down, and finally chasing him offstage after she added ‘I will not yield’. Whatever happened offstage to reverse their fortunes so that Macduff won was unclear. In a moment symptomatic of the production’s attention to the moment rather than coherence, the production refused to show the woman beaten by the man, but couldn’t find a way to reconcile that with the final result.

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