Guilt, gore and indecent lust… it’s the rite stuff! PATRICK MARMION’s four-star review of The Tragedy Of Macbeth

The Tragedy Of Macbeth at the Almeida Theatre, London  

Rating:

Verdict: Hell and high water 

James McArdle and Saoirse Ronan descend into the underworld in one of the bleakest productions of Shakespeare’s Scottish play I can remember. Set in the very lowest of the lower depths of hell, it’s a show that turns the already sinister play into a kind of black mass.

To begin with, our Lord and Lady Macbeth are a hot couple, made even randier by the prospect of power. Her lust for the royal levers of Scotland is positively indecent and sees her almost panting with desire. He is less excited by the prospect of the slaughter required to get to the throne – which he thinks he’s been promised by the equivocating witches (played here by a sullen trio of older women in charcoal trouser suits).

Ronan goes shamelessly to pieces in a fake meltdown in the wake of their first, most audacious killing of the king. Her husband, though, remains infirm of purpose, perhaps too full of what his missus dubs ‘the milk of human kindness’.

Slowly but surely, the pair’s vividly sexualised relationship wilts and wanes as they wade through a spectral tide of guilt and gore.

James McArdle and Saoirse Ronan descend into the underworld in one of the bleakest productions of Shakespeare’s Scottish play I can remember. Set in the very lowest of the lower depths of hell, it’s a show that turns the already sinister play into a kind of black mass

Director Yael Farber has what old lags call ‘previous’ in staging this kind of primordial extremity. Her past shows, including Salome at the National Theatre, tended to be ceremonial rites and were never knowingly understated. Even the title has been ostentatiously extended and this production groans with portent, like an old dog after too much dinner.

It’s played out in a Stygian perma-fog, where slices of light cast shadows as much as they illuminate. Glass screens on casters catch ghostly reflections, a dull moon hangs like a dusty clock over the stage and a ram’s skull for a crown turns Macbeth’s coronation at Scone into a satanic rite.

Adding to the sepulchral mood, Aoife Burke’s cello-playing on stage carves out long, plangent groans; while Tom Lane’s music further thickens the atmosphere with booming drums, an electronic throbbing, heart beats and heavy breathing.

Anything inconvenient to Farber’s infernal mission, such as the famous comic porter’s speech about knocking at the castle gates, is ditched. No room for frippery, either, unless you count McArdle’s Glaswegian lament: ‘Aye, it was a rough night.’

Like his wife, he has a colourful breakdown during which he confides in the cellist (who, last time I checked, was not meant to be part of the action). Yet the tale retains the power to genuinely disturb. The murder of Banquo (a rugged Ross Anderson) sees his son returning, affectingly, to his father’s corpse.

And the butchering of Macduff’s children had some members of the audience squirming and sliding down in their seats in an attempt not to bear witness.

In the end, McArdle is reduced to growling and barking, while Ronan’s elegant catwalk death is worthy of a perfume ad. As the Bard himself puts it, we have all ‘supped full with horrors’

For the final showdown, Macduff (a stentorian Emun Elliott) lays on to Macbeth in a sort of pro-wrestling bout, made more elemental still by the fact that the stage is now awash with water from a running tap, left on so the killers can wash the blood from their hands.

In the end, McArdle is reduced to growling and barking, while Ronan’s elegant catwalk death is worthy of a perfume ad. As the Bard himself puts it, we have all ‘supped full with horrors’.

Still, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss it — and although the Almeida is now sold out, some tickets remain for the online live stream (October 27-30). 

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