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It speaks volumes for Saoirse Ronan’s achievements, at just 27, that news of her U.K. stage debut was greeted with the level of excitement that might accompany a Hollywood veteran. But while at the height of her screen powers, Ronan is still a novice in the theater. So this was an intriguing prospect, as was the pairing of Ronan with James McArdle — already an accomplished stage performer — and the question of what these young actors would offer Shakespeare’s most dastardly Mr. and Mrs.
The answer is something remarkable. Neither disappoints, and together they’re sensational, in what feels like a generational-best Macbeth. Director Yaël Farber has devised a powerhouse interpretation of the play that imaginatively expands Lady Macbeth’s stage time as one half of a now youthful, virile, callow couple, who fall prey to the kind of overreaching that’s stoked in the bedroom and whose mutual undoing is spectacularly moving.
It’s an atmospheric, relentlessly intense, visceral production, yet at the same time has shafts of unexpected humor, sexual energy and a genuine accessibility. With the majority of the voices onstage actually sounding Scottish — and McArdle’s title character even wearing a kilt for a long stretch — for once the euphemism “the Scottish play” fits the bill.
Farber has dealt with witches before, in a manner of speaking, with her excellent 2014 Old Vic production of The Crucible (coincidentally, Ronan’s Broadway debut was in another Crucible, two years later). The director brings the same intelligence and terrifying ferocity to Macbeth, along with an ability to make a play feel as if it’s of the here and now. And with the earlier show’s designer, Soutra Gilmour, and lighting designer Tim Lutkin on board, she creates a similarly intoxicating atmosphere and tone.
Gilmour’s circular stage is bare other than a few highly utilized props, notably two large, mobile glass screens, a low-tech respirator and a rusty industrial faucet rising ominously from the lip of the stage. In fact, the play opens with the whole cast taking turns to wash their hands; by the end, Macbeth and Macduff will be battling each other in a flood. Despite the minimalism, it’s an incredibly dynamic setup, to which Lutkin variously adds dramatic spotlights, swaths of fog or beautifully graded shadow.
Composer Tom Lane and sound designer Peter Rice combine to infuse this space with a continuous soundscape that includes an eerie electronic drone, whispering and the occasional echo of lines, the ever-present cellist Aoife Burke (whose playing brings melancholy and foreboding to many scenes), and impassioned a cappella singing courtesy of Akiya Henry’s Lady Macduff.
Yet the otherworldly atmosphere is only part of the story. Joanna Scotcher’s costuming is modern, from the combat gear of Macbeth’s beefy, sweaty, battle-hardened soldiers (who actually look as though they’d be useful in a fight) to Lady Macbeth’s dazzling wardrobe to the Wyrd Sisters, who are elegantly trouser-suited and far from the cackling crones of old.
Indeed, the prevailing sense is of a familiar world on the verge of dystopia and destruction, with both the coronavirus (the oxygen tank is for William Gaunt’s infirm King Duncan) and global warming looming large in the symbolism. We’re left in no doubt that while the supernatural may prompt the tragedy, it’s human-made.
As Macbeth and Banquo (Ross Anderson) meet the witches, and McArdle launches into Macbeth’s seesaw between opportunism and hesitation about the value of forcing his ascendency, Ronan sits silently at the back of the stage. In a sleek white jumpsuit, her blond hair cut short, she’s an alluring, icily enigmatic presence. Moving center stage to await her husband’s arrival at their castle, she lies on their bed, deliciously acquainting herself with the couple’s sudden options. And as she leaps into her husband’s arms, the words “Great Glamis” carry a jaunty combination of sexual innuendo and rampant ambition.
Ronan maintains her Irish accent for the play, which cannily establishes a Celtic connection to this Scottish milieu while making her Lady Macbeth seem in some way apart from the rest. The lilting sweetness of her voice also adds a disconcerting contrast with the character’s initial, callous certainty and manipulativeness, as she uses Macbeth’s libido (he can’t keep his hands off her) to edge him toward murder.
The baton-changing of malicious intent between the couple is excitingly pronounced here, with telling markers in the bedroom; later, in the same bed, she will turn her back toward her ranting partner as she comes to terms with the monster she’s unleashed. His second meeting with the witches is not on the heath, but in the bed (one of them holding Macbeth maternally in her arms), while his wife prays in the background. Banquo’s ghostly temerity to stride over the bedsheets speaks volumes.
Lady Macbeth’s descent into guilt-ridden madness has always felt a little underwritten, and Farber’s most striking intervention is to remedy this, with Ronan’s considerable help. Some of this is a matter of simple staging and stage presence — both the news of Duncan’s murder and the banquet scene after the coronation are now as much hers as her husband’s, the character imposing herself on the proceedings with the confidence first of co-conspirator and then of queen.
Much bolder, though, is her unraveling with the murder of Macduff’s family. Not only is Lady Macbeth given the messenger’s lines warning Lady Macduff of the approaching assassins, but she is in the room to witness the slaughter, which is brutally, shockingly executed. The queen’s horrified response is so astonishingly well conveyed by Ronan that it’s conceivable the undoing Lady Macbeth subsequently succumbs to is a form of PTSD. This scene alone is stunning, superb theater.
For his part, McArdle (Angels in America, Peer Gynt, the recent Kate Winslet starrer Mare of Eastwick) is a wonderfully blustery, energetic, flesh-and-blood Macbeth, in total command of the verse. He makes the initial prevarication all too believable, and hence the total break with sanity and morality — in all that to-ing and fro-ing, something has to give. In McArdle’s hands, this Macbeth feels like the flip side of Hamlet.
He’s funny, too, bringing throwaway lines (“It was a rough night”) to life and making hay with Farber’s highly original conception of the banquet, which seems to take place in a ballroom rather than a dining hall, with the Macbeths — in figure-hugging turquoise gown and kilt — dancing to Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again” (a nice steal from the sisters, of course) and McArdle brilliantly comic as Banquo’s ghost keeps taking his chair. What an inspired touch to have him scrape the cellist’s bow across her strings as he tells her, “I am steeped in blood.”
The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, throwing themselves into the roles with a passion that elevates scenes that so often feel like filler — the difficult alliance of Malcolm (Michael Abubakar) and Macduff (Emun Elliott) being a good example, their debate unusually alive, and reflecting the audience’s understanding that too few leaders question their suitability to govern.
At times the production’s passion threatens to engulf the audience in the front row. But the occasional splash from the tap, or during the climactic fight (man’s unleashing of the heavens far more hazardous than Burnham Wood on the move) is a small price to pay for a dramatization as persuasively elemental as this.
Finally, though, it’s the rendering of the Macbeths that lingers, as a couple carried away by the overconfidence of youth and ill equipped for the consequences. Suddenly the murderous intent of “We are but young in deed” sounds like a lament: “We are but young, indeed.”
Venue: The Almeida Theatre, London
Cast: James McArdle, Saoirse Ronan, Michael Abubakar, Ross Anderson, Aoife Burke, Emun Elliott, William Gaunt, Akiya Henry
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Yaël Farber
Set designer: Soutra Gilmour
Costume designer: Joanna Scotcher
Music: Tom Lane
Lighting designer: Tim Lutkin
Sound designer: Peter Rice
Presented by The Almeida
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