‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ review

Theatre, Shakespeare
4 out of 5 stars
The Tragedy of Macbeth, Almeida, 2021
Photo by Marc Brenner Saoirse Ronan (Lady Macbeth)

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Saoirse Ronan makes a thrilling UK stage debut in this exquisitely apocalyptic take on Shakeapeare’s play


Lady Macbeth is famously only the second biggest role in ‘Macbeth’. But I doubt punters here to see four times Oscar-nominated megastar Saoirse Ronan – at a conservative guess, that would be all the punters – will leave disappointed. James McArdle’s spectacularly disintegrating Macbeth is the main event in Yaël Farber’s exquisitely apocalyptic modern dress production. But Ronan is really very good, and rarely off stage. Her Lady M is a vibrant, confident woman. Yes, she aids her husband in the murder of William Gaunt’s frail Duncan, King of Scotland. But as Macbeth pitches further into murderous madness, she pulls away from him, a beacon of comparative humanity, devastated at what he has become. 

Farber’s production very clearly makes horror at Macbeth’s slaughter of his nemesis Macduff’s family the reason for Lady Macbeth’s mental collapse. Before that the elegant, charismatic Ronan portrays her as a strong woman with moral boundaries that – while clearly permitting regicide – are very much in place, a pillar of confident strength next to her erratic, paranoid, overwhelmed husband. Clad in white or blue, she’s usually the only point of light in the relentless gloom. 

A few tweaks have been made to her role, by handing her other characters’ lines. Most notably, she takes over the part of the messenger who warns Lady Macduff of her imminent demise. Clearly the frantic, barefoot, nightgown wearing Lady M can’t be there. But as an expression of her extreme distress at the event, it’s a smart change. Yes, the extremely famous Ronan has far more stage time than many of her predecessors. But it’s a fault of many productions that such a key character can disappear for so long. All the changes make sense, and it’s an extremely respectable UK stage debut for Ronan. It’s worth noting also, that in her first Shakespeare play she speaks the verse very well indeed (in her own accent FYI).


‘A thunderous total marriage of sound, spectacle and performance’

Really, though, ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ is dominated by two people: idiosyncratic director Farber, and leading man McArdle.

The South African director is a practitioner of a sort of instantly identifiable doomy maximalism that can appear self-parodic in theory: there will always be haze; there will never be any jokes; it will probably be long (at just over three hours this ‘Macbeth’ is comfortably the longest production of Shakespeare’s short tragedy I’ve ever seen). 

But more often than not, the reality is often genuinely awesome, a thunderous total marriage of sound, spectacle and performance. That definitely goes for ‘Macbeth’, which is defined by Tom Lane’s pulsing, ever-present score, the sonorous contributions of live cellist Aoife Burke, and a visual aesthetic centred on foreboding, dimly lit tableaux. That most especially goes for Diane Fletcher, Maureen Hibbert and Valerie Lilley’s besuited Wyrd Sisters, who rarely leave the stage, but instead hide in plain sight, frozen ominously in place, watching the action silently, their faces lit in craggy chthonic friezes. When they’re not in scenes, Ronan and McArdle usually hover in the background, living ghosts, haunting the play.

A mention must go to Soutra Gilmour's set: for much of the play it’s minimal, little more than a couple of perspex screens that partition the action or provide eerie reflections of it. But the working tap at the front of the stage – which initially prefigures Lady M’s later desire to wash – eventually comes into its own for a climactic scene that takes place in a huge puddle of water. It’s a teensy bit gimmicky tbh, but also quite cool.

The pace is slow for ‘Macbeth’, which is normally rattled out as a fast-paced, action-packed war play. But Farber’s production is potent, immaculately sculpted and largely justified in its approach. There are even cuts: the late light relief of the Porter’s speech gets the chop (no humour, remember?). But scenes usually blasted through get carefully reimagined, most impressively the banquet scene, which alternates between manic cheer and dysfunctional breakdown and goes on for an age as Macbeth continually pulls himself together then falls apart again. It’s eerie and discombobulating, a window into Macbeth’s decaying state of mind, and his wife’s last truly concerted attempts to prop him up.

Heading a cast largely comprising his fellow Scots, McArdle isn’t a household name, but he’s a hugely respected stage actor who has tackled an array of heavyweight roles at the National Theatre in recent years. His Macbeth is a true portrait of descent. At the beginning he’s almost mild-mannered, an affable sort who expects no great reward from his service to Duncan. He only seems to go down the road of murder because he feels it’s an inevitability after the Wyrd Sisters prophesise he will be king. 

Unlike his wife, who only falls apart when the killings go too far, the sense here is that he’s never really up to the job - chivvied on by her to commit the first killing, he soon becomes weepy and emotional, barely sleeping, consumed by paranoia. His descent into madness is far more headlong and disturbing than his wife’s. And it’s a measure of McArdle’s brilliance as an actor that this doesn’t feel hammy: yes he’s channeling big, brutal emotions, and yes, by the end he’s a snarling, vituperative mess. It is a wilfully less elegant play than Shakespeare’s other tragedies. But in McArdle’s hands, Macbeth’s collapse feels every bit as meticulous as Hamlet’s or Lear’s, a mediocre man unsuited to leadership, consumed by the terrible forces he has unleashed.

It’s obviously somewhat portentous. The climactic showdown between Macbeth and Macduff is a bit of a (literally) damp squib. A final twist to the end aspires to profundity but is a bit silly. And ‘Macbeth’ has the underlying problem that it’s not really tragic: there is nothing even remotely sad about the man himself getting his dues, and Farber and Ronan’s rehabilitation of Lady Macbeth can only go so far.

But this is a bold and powerful version of Shakespeare’s play that feels fully realised and justified in its choices. It is absolutely not a gaudy star vehicle, but it uses its star to the fullest extent while trusting that it’s McArdle who will truly electrify audiences. Still just 27, this is a fine, confident London stage debut for Saoirse Ronan. Still just 27, she’s not put a foot wrong in her screen career – and now that goes for stage.

A final set of tickets, for performances November 8 to 27 will go on sale noon October 21.

Five performances from October 27 to 30 will be streamed live from the Almeida. Tickets are limited, but currently available.


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