Macbeth, Donmar Warehouse, 2023
Photo: Marc Brenner
  • Theatre, Shakespeare
  • Harold Pinter Theatre, Leicester Square
  • Recommended



4 out of 5 stars

David Tennant is a chillingly single-minded Macbeth in this idiosyncratic take on The Scottish Play


Time Out says

This review is from the Donmar Warehouse, December 2023. ‘Macbeth’ will transfer to the Harold Pinter Theatre in October 2024 with David Tennant and Cush Jumbo returning.

I wouldn’t quite say David Tennant has been upstaged by a pair of headphones. But as the two-time Doctor regenerates into Shakespeare’s murderous Scottish monarch, you can’t seriously attend the Donmar’s new production of ‘Macbeth’ and say that Tennant – or for that matter big name co-star Cush Jumbo – feels like the defining element of Max Webster’s production.

Instead that’s the binaural sound design by Gareth Fry that requires all audience members to wear headphones throughout, an unusual and somewhat distracting experience, or at least until you acclimatise. 

In essence, the use of headphones achieves two things. 

One, it allows a constant stream of 3D sound to be relayed to your ears: the screeches of birds, music from musicians in the mic-ed up glass chamber at the back of Rosanna Vize’s stark, monochrome set, and most impressively a ‘three sisters’ who are wholly physically absent, just disembodied voices whose location we feel we can ‘see’ thanks to the pinpoint design.

And two, it allows the actors to talk, not project, using casual or even quiet registers that would normally never work on stage - it was geekily fascinating to take the headpieces off now and again and see exactly how low a volume some of the dialogue was. 

I’m going to be honest, for about half an hour I hated it, or was at least very unsure. The constant stream of sound effects and new agey music feels gimmicky – as much as anything, you don’t need headphones for this stuff: there’s absolutely no reason you couldn't just have a regular live band and somebody regularly pressing the ‘raven’ sound effect.

Jatinder Singh Randhawa’s Porter probably wasn’t the actual turning point for me. But his extremely enjoyable, audience-address speech – delivered in contemporary language – contains the memorably droll observation ‘this is just watching a radio drama isn’t it?’. It feels like it punctures a certain tension – perhaps diffusing the idea that we’re supposed to be in absolute awe at the sound design.

The main thing that happens is your ear acclimatises and you start to get what’s being achieved with the different speech registers. As evidenced by his Donmar ‘Henry V’, Webster is very good at politics in Shakespeare. And Tennant in particular is one of the most nuanced, charismatic actors out there. He plays Macbeth as a hard-nosed political operator with little of the hesitancy or guilt the character is typically saddled with. As the bodies start to pile up, there’s a chilling casualness to his behaviour – his intimate suggestion to the two assassins that they murder Banquo and his son Fleance is offhand and matey, like he’s asking them to do something a little naughty as a favour. He makes it sound so plausible.

Once I’d gotten into it, I found Tennant utterly gripping, and so too his relationship with Jumbo’s Lady M. It’s a cliche that Macbeth usually dithers over the murder of King Duncan and she is more ruthless, the evil woman who eggs him on. Here Jumbo feels more like an enabler than a ringleader – Tennant shoots her looks of askance when contemplating his first murder, but it’s clear he actually wants to do this. Being able to speak more quietly takes the bombast out of her language - she’s not ordering him to kill Duncan, just affirming his instincts.

What’s really interesting is that Lady M soon becomes consumed by guilt – especially once child murder comes into the equation – while Macbeth experiences almost none. One way of looking at it is that this is simply dispensing with the idea of a dithering Macbeth pushed into murder: he was a ruthless bastard from the start. Meanwhile Lady M’s humanity is bolstered by having her visit Lady MacDuff shortly before the latter’s murder, in what’s clearly a fit of conscience (she takes the lines of the minor character Ross, an idea the Almeida’s recent production also hit on)

Another way to look at it is that Webster is showing the black-clad Macbeth and white-clad Lady Macbeth to be parts of the same whole, with the increasingly horrified Jumbo coming across less like Tennant’s wife, more the vestiges of his humanity. His behaviour gets more depraved as she gets iller (or vice versa – she gets sicker the worse he behaves). It’s a really fascinating idea, 

Combined with the restraint of delivery inherent to the format, and it’s hugely compelling a take about a ruthless politician who pushes his ambitions so far that he loses his humanity, something that feels inextricably bound up in the eventual loss of his life. 

It’s also worth saying that effectively using sound instead of sets means there are no real scene changes, so the production can go at a monumental clip – ‘Macbeth’ was always pacey, but there are absolutely no longeurs here, just thrilling set piece after thrilling set piece, the whole thing blasted out in under two hours.

I think there is a slight distancing effect to the headphones that never really goes away, which perhaps holds this production back from Big Star Does Famous Role And Gets Awards territory. There is unavoidably a note of curio to it. But the nuance the actors can bring nonetheless makes it a (literally) quiet revelation, that brings tremendous, subtle performances out of its whole cast.


Harold Pinter Theatre
Panton Street
Tube: Piccadilly Circus/Leicester Square
£25-£195. Runs 1hr 50min (no interval)

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