Somewhere in this production lies Shakespeare's tragedy: Almeida's Macbeth reviewed

23 October 2021

9:00 AM

23 October 2021

9:00 AM


Almeida, until 27 November

The Cherry Orchard

Theatre Royal, Windsor, until 13 November

Yaël Farber’s Macbeth sets out to be a great work of art. The director crams the Almeida’s stage with suggestive props, glass panels, microphones, a wheelbarrow full of jackboots. The witches are not the usual vagrants or carbuncled mystics. These grim-looking ladies have expensive hairdos and nicely ironed shirts — like a panel of disgruntled academics at a tribunal.

William Gaunt is a decrepit Duncan who looks ready to receive his telegram from the Queen. He can barely rise from his NHS wheelchair. But one wonders why this frail old chap had to be knifed to death? Much easier to smother him with a pillow and claim he expired naturally. Gaunt speaks with an English accent but the rest of his court are ranting Scotsmen who wear beards and identical combat fatigues. It’s hard to distinguish one from another.

James McArdle (Macbeth) seems too nice to be a half-crazed warlord. Give him a little brewery to run in Shoreditch and he’d be fine. Saoirse Ronan (Lady Macbeth) wears a natty white catsuit and speaks her lines with a pleasant Irish brogue. At times she seems like a Ryanair stewardess stranded in a team-building exercise for angry Scottish dads. The production makes her role larger than Shakespeare intended and she witnesses the murder of Macduff’s family. This certainly helps to explain her mental collapse at the end but her death is presented as a glamorous and beautiful sacrifice. What for? She’s a bigger psycho than her husband.

The director believes that Scotland was suffering from climate change in the 11th century. There’s an electric fan to keep the castle cool as temperatures rise around the world. Meanwhile the melting ice-caps have caused the moat to flood, and a shallow pool of water spreads inexorably across the stage during the action. Important speeches are accompanied by the sound of boots sploshing.

And let’s not forget the music. It never stops. A soprano ululates into a microphone while a cellist saws at a wooden box. Banquo’s death wins the prize for the most over-produced scene of the year. The two murderers stab him in the guts while the singer moans and the cellist grinds. The three witches watch this atrocity from the rear of the stage, looking elegantly furious. To one side Macbeth and his wife canoodle in a shadowy castle corridor. The whole thing is as artful and antiseptic as a George Michael video.

So much effort has been lavished on these pictorial details that the basics have been overlooked. Scene after scene is ruined because the male actors simply bawl and shriek at each other. It’s like watching road-rage footage. The scene in which Macduff learns of his family’s murder is one of the most psychologically acute portraits of bereavement ever written. But it needs variety of tone. Emun Elliott begins the scene yelling at top volume so he has no higher pitch of emotion to reach for. Instead he collapses, like a stricken rock star, choking on streams of spume and snot. A wonderful opportunity ruined by saliva.

The play closes with an inexplicable gesture. An actress crosses the flooded stage and empties the wheelbarrow full of boots into the shallow water. Somewhere in this gallery of contrivances lies Shakespeare’s tragedy. But it’s hard to spot.

Naughty Ian McKellen. After his athletic triumph as Hamlet last summer he returns to the Theatre Royal, Windsor, to perform a lap of honour. He plays Firs in Sean Mathias’s Cherry Orchard. Who is Firs? He’s the dotty old servant who works for Ranyevskaya, a spendthrift matriarch who returns to Russia after years in exile following her young son’s sudden death.

The play is a beautiful meditation on grief and stoicism, and the script has been adjusted to give Firs additional prominence. But let’s be honest, it’s a cameo. McKellen, in a magnificent grey beard, gets plenty of laughs from Firs’s non-sequiturs and distracted ramblings. And he bulks out the role with improvisations. He snorts and frowns. He clears his throat meaningfully. He chunters and mutters to himself as he potters about the drawing-room.

The audience loves it. But Firs makes no demands on his talent. And if he steals the odd scene, he does so diplomatically. Perhaps he regrets not taking the meatier role of Lopakhin which Martin Shaw plays with gruff amiability. Francesca Annis finds there’s not much to be done with Ranyevskaya, the kindly aristocrat who can’t see bankruptcy staring her in the face.

Robert Daws’s plump and jovial Pishchik seems to have been drafted in from a Swedish fairy-tale. He delivers every line with an effusion of mirthful chortling. Alis Wyn Davies stands out as a charismatic Dunyasha. Better things lie ahead for her. And one hopes that when McKellen has enjoyed his break he’ll come back and put in a full shift.

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