A man and a woman (possibly naked) from the necks up, with the Almeida Theatre's logo in the corner.

October 27, 2021, by Peter Kirwan

Macbeth @ The Almeida (live stream)

As chamber-piece Macbeths go, perhaps the most iconic remains Trevor Nunn’s RSC production at The Other Place, filmed for television in one of the starkest, barest of all Shakespeare films. The Almeida’s new production, directed by Yaël Farber, aimed at times for a similar effect, with the production’s live broadcast director translating the intimacy of the Almeida into an at-times claustrophobic close encounter with a nightmare. While the production struggled at times to cohere into an organic whole, nuanced performances and a tone of continual dread found some compelling through-lines that, at the production’s best, allowed this Macbeth to feel newly horrifying.

Some of the production’s framing felt more, perhaps intentionally, obscure. The witches wore over-sized men’s blazers and pronounced their lines (and choice others, including the reports of supernatural horrors in the night) as if a Chorus. As Holger Schott Syme noted in his tweets during the livestream, the final image saw them at the head of a tableau clustered around a theatrical ghost light, and in some ways they made the most sense if seen as the remnants of a vaudevillian theatrical history, the ghosts of theatre itself. How this related to the rest of the production, I’m not sure; Soutra Gilmour’s set of rostra and glass frames and bits of wooden furniture felt, at times, like a kind of backstage area. But these witches also actively intervened in the world of the play, particularly in relation to Lady Macbeth as they made the bed on which she was first revealed, and then later surrounded her as – approaching her death – she responded to an overheard song calling to her: ‘Come away, come away / We lack but you’. Whatever these spirits were, they wanted Lady Macbeth, and were content to wait patiently for her.

The Witches weren’t alone in their attempts to influence what was happening onstage, in a production that at times felt like a deliberate battle between cultural forces. Prominent on stage was a cellist, Aoife Burke, who provided a score throughout that began slow, sonorous, accompanied by the drone that seems to be an omnipresent element of Almeida productions, but which ramped up into faster and louder bowing as the production developed and as Macbeth himself (James McArdle) became more frantic. By the middle of the second half, it was no longer clear whether the cello was responding to or was driving Macbeth’s thoughts, and more fascinatingly, Macbeth himself became aware of the cellist, addressing one set of speeches (after the appearance of Banquo’s Ghost, if I remember correctly) directly to her. By the time of Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking, the cellist began to speak, taking on the role of the Gentlewoman and sharing her insights into Lady Macbeth’s presence, revealing just how closely she had been watching the production all along. It was a small moment, but added to an accumulating set of dread, in which the elements one might be trained to discount from the play’s diegesis suddenly turn out to have been watching you all along.

The competing musical influences also took in classic wartime songs (‘We’ll Meet Again’ played prominently at the start of both halves) and Celtic traditional. With Scottish and Irish accents dominating the stage (Lady Macbeth and her gentlewoman were Irish, suggesting alignment between them – if taken literally, perhaps acknowledging them as ‘foreign’ within the world of the play), there might have been a gesture towards scenic realism, but this was replaced instead with symbols and rituals, old cultures occasionally breaking through the modernity of costume and weaponry. A sheep’s skull, present at Macbeth’s crowning at Scone, stood onstage for a long time; Macbeth and Lady Macbeth donned cloaks (and Macbeth a kilt) for the crowning; the hosting of Duncan took the form of a traditional Celtic dinner/singing session, with general hubbub dying down as guests sat on and around tables and listened to a folk song (the same song that later haunted Lady Macbeth to her grave). Celtic identities here became a series of traditions and moods that gave shape to life, but which also operated beyond the ken of mortals, manifesting in the slippages of the theatrical frame. At times, as in the tonally distinctive public routine in which Macbeth and Lady Macbeth danced together to ‘We’ll Meet Again’ before giving speeches into a microphone, it even felt like characters were deliberately retreating from the melodies and resonances that sought to claim them.

For no-one was this as true as for Lady Macbeth (Saoirse Ronan), around whom the production seemed to have been built. Enjoying a much-expanded role, Ronan’s Lady Macbeth had a pleasingly coherent psychological arc, as well as a truly jaw-dropping array of outfits. From the outset, she was the confident, proactive counter to McArdle’s somewhat tongue-tied Macbeth, wrapping herself around him and talking nineteen-to-the-dozen as she painted a picture of their life together. As he hesitated before the murder of Duncan – the very elderly William Gaunt, using a wheelchair and bowed down by the compromised decisions he had already made in war, as when he watched the Thane of Cawdor executed with a gunshot to the head – Lady Macduff let him know exactly what she thought of him in a masterclass of manipulation. Injecting just enough scorn into her voice so that her disdain came across as disappointment in him rather than anger, while managing her proximity to him so that she was pulling away as if in revulsion at the same time as she leaned into him, Ronan made her Lady Macbeth an absolutely magnetic figure who reduced Macbeth to his knees. The girl-boss energy, the complete self-possession, the hint of a sneer that told Macbeth that he had fallen in her respect, made absolute sense to me for the first time – perhaps ever – of why Macbeth would still go ahead with the murder.

In the wake of the murder, Lady Macbeth was frequently left to cover for his husband. Her fainting lines were cut, and instead she took over Macbeth’s explanation of why he had killed the grooms as he became tongue-tied. Similarly, at the start of the banquet scene, Lady Macbeth took the lead in welcoming the unseen nobles through formal announcements into a microphone, then covered for Macbeth as he became distracted by the thoughts of the murderers and ran off to meet them. The editing juxtaposed the luminous, blonde-haired and white-clad Lady Macbeth with the skulking Macbeth, in black against the bare walls of the Almeida, and that juxtaposition illustrated the difference between her public composure and his increasing pull towards the dark spaces.

But she no longer had control. Early on, she was visibly taken aback as Macbeth dismissed her before welcoming the murderers; he wasn’t unpleasant with it, but the clarity of his instruction clearly disarmed her. Pleasingly, the shift in the power relations between them wasn’t linear, but rather began a process of developing uncertainty that was catalysed by the appearance of the Ghost – a frightening, human, angry Banquo – and by her encounter with the frenzied Macbeth after his second visit to the Witches. Watching him in passion as he prepared for his next steps, Lady Macbeth turned and fled into the shadows, only to turn up at Lady Macduff’s (Akiya Henry) house to warn her of her husband’s advances. The element of this which rang false was Lady Macduff’s reaction to the presence of the queen in her house, which I struggled to parse; and the production then confronted us – and Lady Macbeth – with the traumatic sight of a Black woman and her Black children being murdered brutally by a group of white men in horrible fashion; the camera spun quickly from the slashed throat of one boy to the screaming face of Lady Macduff, who was then drowned in a nearby butt of water – with the camera repeatedly returning to the horrified face of Lady Macbeth, silent witness ignored by the murderers. The spectacle of the Black family being tortured and murdered as part of Lady Macbeth‘s character development troubled me; it was undeniably effective, but at what felt to me a cost in terms of Lady Macduff’s own consistency.

Lady Macbeth then ran to the onstage tap, which had been turned on at the start of the production, and to which characters turned throughout, resulting in a stage that was filled with water by the play’s end, allowing for some striking images as Lady Macbeth was laid down in the water for her death, and as Macbeth threw himself into it. The water of the floor became a mirror that echoed the reflective surfaces elsewhere on stage, all constantly refracting the images of the protagonists back to themselves. This reinforced the psychological interests of the production. As well as giving Lady Macbeth a coherent through-line, the production leaned heavily on Macbeth’s soliloquies as set-pieces, with the camera coming in close (often in constant, hand-held motion) to hone in close on each nuance. McArdle convincingly made the soliloquies feel like spontaneous expressions; at his best, he stumbled over his words, seeming to have to grab them as if straining for the right words to express himself. Especially during the production’s first half, this uncertain, improvising Macbeth – juxtaposed with his firm queen – was compelling.

As the second half progressed, beginning with the banquet and progressing to the witches’ apparitions (during which the witches cradled him) and then to the siege of Dunsinane, Macbeth unravelled. By the time he was hunched over a fire, burning reports and hissing in paranoid fashion, he evoked the contemporaneous Timon of Athens, misanthropic in his isolation. The camera by this point was practically whizzing to keep up with him (this voyeuristic camera, incidentally, often seemed to take the place of characters; at one point, it made up the fourth part of a square with Macbeth and the two murderers, as if joining the conspiracy) as he barked at soldiers, took up his weapon, and called for news. Only in his reflection on Lady Macbeth’s loss did he seem momentarily to slow down, her body lying in the water as he reflected on life being like a poor player – a metaphor that perhaps extended to the production’s metatheatrical framing.

The close attention to Macbeth and Lady Macbeth meant that the rest of the ensemble, while often excellent, didn’t perhaps get as much space as they could. The first half of the production felt more consistent in that its close focus on Macbeth and Lady Macbeth gave it a claustrophobic tightness and a low-key atmosphere of restrained dread. The second half spread its focus more widely, and was more tonally disparate as a result. The scene in the Macduffs’ house was the first played without an instrumental underscore, suddenly giving it a bare, documentary realism. The England scene was handled efficiently and straightforwardly, the three men standing in a triangle and talking it out. Emun Elliott’s Macduff did fine work at conveying the overwhelming grief and rage at the news of his family’s murder, but where the Macbeths seemed to be playing for the benefit of the camera, Elliott’s more theatrical outpourings felt a little overwhelming on film. Michael Abubakar’s Malcolm was a more complex heir than usual, showing a political savvy without losing the earnestness of the earlier scenes. And Ross Anderson was a gruff, loyal Banquo, terrifying in death and suspicious in life. One of the production’s tensest moments came as Banquo realised Macbeth was holding Fleance just a little too close, and as he called Fleance to him, it looked for just a moment as if Macbeth wouldn’t loosen his grip. The palpable tension between the two was brought to a swift end in a violent (though again, a little big for the camera) multi-way fight with the murderers, ending with the camera slowly coming towards Banquo’s body as Fleance mourned over it, before suddenly rushing away for the interval.

This production felt pulled in a lot of different directions, both as a conscious theatrical choice that created external and internal conflicts for the characters, and perhaps also as an accident of a production that hadn’t fully made all of its ideas cohere. But at its best, this was a riveting, intimate Macbeth that worked harder than many to trace plausible through-lines for its main cast while at the same time generating a theatrical manifestation of the supernatural that threatened to disrupt safe boundaries of behaviour. As the ensemble clustered around the ghost light at the end, I had the eerie sense of ghosts of the theatre playing out their drama, night after night – as these actors, of course, are doing.

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