6 October 2021
THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH (Almeida Theatre) Review
I didn’t see the production of Macbeth at the National Theatre a few years back and toyed with giving this one a miss also. James McArdle was pretty good in “Angels in America” (need to dig up the review I wrote for friend and post it retrospectively) and not very good in “Peter Gynt” (though, to be fair, the play itself was utterly rubbish), so I thought I’d give him one more chance…
First things first. Although the set is quite sparse (a table, a couple of chairs, and some clear screens), the production feels visually rich. The colour pallet of the whole play is dark gray with the exception of Lady Macbeth’s colourful dresses, so I am struggling to pinpoint where this richness comes from, but it’s definitely a feast for the eyes. That said, the show is over 3 hours long (including a 20-min interval), and I felt every minute of it. The pacing is either off or too slow or both. When I mentioned it to a friend (who, incidentally, was going to come with, but stood me up in the end), he said, “How can Macbeth be slow?” Hard to tell, but the things did drag on a bit in quite a few places: the fights, the deaths…
Although the play is still in previews (so no formal reviews from the press), what little notes I’ve seen on this production all talk about its relevancy to modern times. There is a tap on stage (and a lot of water), so links are being made between that and the constant hand washing given Covid, and so on. Perhaps I am being overly thick, but it didn’t seem that way to me. In fact, ignoring the dance music, the production had a timeless quality about it: it could have been taken place anywhere any time. I really liked that about it, which is why I was ever so disappointed when the children ran onto the stage with remote-controlled toy cars rather than with more “classic” toys. The timelessness was further underscored by the notion that life is an endless cycle: the play ends exactly as it begins.
This production is directed by Yaël Farber, whose staging of “Blood Wedding” I saw at the Young Vic a years back. The richness, the movement, the water, all the elements were here as they were there, yet, same as with that one, I just couldn’t get invested in the action…
Speaking of the water, the theatre does warn that the front row in the stalls is a splash zone, and, true to form, those people got soaked good and proper. Even if they hadn’t, I thought some of the water usage was gratuitous: it didn’t add anything for my liking. There was also something a bit Chekhov about it: you don’t create a body of water unless you plan on drowning someone in it.
I also didn’t get the use of screens… I know that these sometimes used to separate the set for clarity, for example, people speaking in one room making it clear that people in the other room can’t hear them. Given where/how these were stood up, it didn’t make sense… The screens were also reflective, so I thought maybe they were there to add spaciousness to some scenes or let the audience see the back of the actors, as well as their reflection from the side. Not sure, but, for me, they were more of a distraction than a welcome contribution. Similarly, I didn’t understand the point/purpose of the giant clock, as it doesn’t seem to be marking time in any sensible way.
As for the acting… On balance, I enjoyed McArdle’s performance as Macbeth. He is speaking in his native Scottish, but he is extremely easy to understand (which, unfortunately, can’t be said for some of the other cast members). I thought he might be overdoing the “madness” just a smidge, as there were a couple of places where he was less descending into madness than more having an apoplectic fit, but reckon it will settle into a more measured stride as the show progresses. Saoirse Ronan as Lady Macbeth… I can’t make up my mind. Her melodic Irish smooths out McArdle’s Scottish quite nicely, and she does pull off a good “strong woman behind the man” character. But there were a few places where her gestures and facial expressions made the audience laugh, and I thought it was the wrong choice for my liking. Obviously I can’t tell of that’s coming from Ronan or from Farber’s direction, but it did rub me the wrong way.
As for the chemistry between the two (about which much has been said triumphantly), they certainly do have fantastic chemistry together, but it didn’t strike me as particularly romantic. If I didn’t know better (and if not for romantic scenes), Ronan’s character felt more like an older sister taking carer of a younger brother. Perhaps it’s just me.
To give credit where credit is due, the scene following the murder of Lady Macduff (sorry, but, with Shakespeare, this isn’t really a spoiler: everyone dies!), played superbly by Akiya Henry, where Lady Macbeth flutters around the stage was the best one in this production for me. It shows off Ronan’s range beautifully.
The rest of the cast is solid, but no one stood out for me (except for aforementioned Henry). The only other person I recognised was Emun Elliott, having seen him in “The Rose Tattoo” in New York. Sad to say, his Macduff didn’t feel all that genuine, which is a shame.
Cheapskate enjoyment value: £5.
Bonus: A young lady in her late teens or early 20s in the seat next to me (wearing a mask, bless her, and sanitising her hands repeatedly throughout the show, the irony of which wasn’t lost on me) must not have been too familiar with either Shakespeare in general or Macbeth specifically. Any time a character was about to get killed, she’d drop her face into her hands, shake her head, and whisper, “not again…” I dare say it made the time go faster.