Saoirse Ronan’s UK stage debut in The Tragedy of Macbeth is comfortably fine in what is an eerie and uncomfortable production. Under Yaël Farber’s direction, The Scottish Play is both discomforting when it needs to be, but also when it doesn’t.
Its success is in the minuscule. Credit has to be given to lighting designer Tim Lutkin, as he does so much with so little lighting to begin with. On a similar note, the theatrical ghost light at its opening is rather fitting for the three witches (renamed as the Wyrd Sisters here and played by older women in suits), an actor coating himself in blood is wonderfully reminiscent of The Duchess of Malfi, and after Lady Macbeth’s hand washing became a lockdown meme, Soutra Gilmour’s set has the perfect equipment in place for Covid – there’s a tap on stage, glass panes wheeled around at times, and a fan above the action for perfect ventilation.
Yet unlike the panes, the creative decision behind these choices and others aren’t very clear. A clock in the background ticks away with minimal influence. What symbolism does Banquo wearing a ram’s skull poses? Why were a load of shoes dumped on stage at the start? Answers on a postcard, please.
Elsewhere, those separators could have been a really interesting bridge between the real world and the afterlife, but save for Lady Macbeth’s (Ronan) demise, it serves only as a fairly traditional way to show two different scenes at the same time, to little effect.
Speaking of separation, it’s hard to connect with the action for the first half of the performance – namely because sloppy sound design (namely in the form of a groaning cello at the back of the stage) clashes with the thick and heavy Scottish accents of the performers, making it impossible to hear. If you’re sat in the middle of the curved layout of the audience (in other words, looking straight on at the performers), then you also lose a fair amount to actors turning their back on you. If you’re in the front two rows, you may also get covered in water too, as a bonus.
Once again, one has to wonder and dig deep to question if there are directorial reasons for this. Is it that Lady Macbeth and Macduff turn away to hide a grief which threatens their otherwise brave and unflinching demeanour? It’s unlikely, as fortunately, the way in which the characters are performed by the company is far from two-dimensional.
Similarly, as Lady Macbeth first emerges in a white suit against Macbeth’s black, it’s a curious contrast that is tragically short-lived. What could have been a symbolic reference to the clouding of her judgement (the fading of her white clothes to black) is instead mixed with blues and pinks, and while the costumes are immaculate, it feels like a missed trick not to explore the idea of the tainting of purity further, beyond her white dress being stained with blood at one point – especially given her ‘hands’ monologue.
As for the overbearing cello, the reasoning behind that is pretty obvious. At its best, it strikes an ominous, sinister tone, but it often outstays its welcome. When King Duncan bestows Macbeth with the honour of Thane of Cawdor, the string instrument ruins a moment which is already cinematic in itself. Add to this the fact that it’s promptly eliminated by Macbeth in the second half, one wondered what the intention was behind the musical presence, especially when things became a lot more engaging and intense when the music was relegated to the background and to normal levels.
At this point, the performances of our two leading actors – Ronan and Peter Gynt actor James McArdle – are finally given the room they need to breath, and they shine together. During an awkward address to the crowd, Lady Macbeth attempts to salvage public appearances in the middle of a candid breakdown from Macbeth, who has seen the ghost of his friend Banquo. Although the reaction to the death is overdue, McArdle’s response to the hallucination is chilling. Deaths in part two, most notably that of Macduff’s family and Macbeth himself, are all the more chilling in their silence, as we watch on, undeterred by such misery and devastation.
It’s here where The Tragedy of Macbeth undoubtedly falls short, as these quieter moments are few and far between across a three hour-long production which is loud and messy in more ways than one. McArdle and Ronan’s performances are respectable, the latter playing a conflicted Lady Macbeth who wants both intimacy and distance from foul deeds, but this strong two-hander with its curious moments is undermined by an overbearing direction which stifles and drowns out the drama – and that’s the real tragedy.
The Tragedy of Macbeth is now playing at the Almeida Theatre until 27 November. The production will also be live-streamed from 27-30 October.
Production Images: Marc Brenner.
Disclaimer: I was invited to review ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ for free as a member of the press in exchange for a review of the production. I did not receive payment for this piece and all opinions expressed are honest and my own.