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The Tragedy of Macbeth

By William Shakespeare
Almeida Theatre, Islington, London N1 until November 27 2021

By Jarlath O'Connell
Published on October 18, 2021
https://almeida.co.uk/

Macbeth James McArdle and Saoirse Ronan in The Tragedy of Macbeth at The Almeida Theatre. PHOTO: MARC BRENNER

Theater needs stars and the Almeida has pulled off a coup in attracting 4-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan away from the movie sets to make her London debut as Lady Macbeth. Scottish actor James McArdle, another rising star, who did Angels in America on Broadway, plays her jittery husband. They both bring a gleaming charisma to it and Ronan is lit and costumed like a Hollywood star of old.

The director, Toronto based Yaël Farber, is the other reason to see this production. In fact, she is one of the few international directors who is the total reason to see a play, so singular is her vision.

Her pieces (she did a haunting Crucible at the Old Vic and an unforgettable Les Blancs at the National) are akin to attending High Mass. Her lighting designers (here the great Tim Lutkin) illuminate her spaces as if they’re cathedrals, with sharp splinters of light, or in this case fashion a meditative tableaux with the chiaroscuro of a de la Tour painting. She's elemental, employing fire, water, earth and often incense in her productions. It adds up to theater as a solemn Benediction.

Macbeth Out, damned spot… Saoirse Rona deftly calibrates Lady Macbeth's quick descent into madness. PHOTO: MARC BRENNER

She’s great for Macbeth because it reeks of the night and centers on a medieval past full of violent shocks, smeared blood, and specters. Interestingly, here the 3 ‘Wyrd Sisters’ (witches) are very grounded; dressed soberly in business suits they inform Macbeth of what’s to come with a dry matter-of-factness. Overall, they function more as a Greek Chorus than a trio of ethereal frighteners.

Her productions pack a great emotional punch partly because of her baroque theatricality but also great casting. Here, the men are black kilted, brawny, and barrel like and you don’t for a second doubt where a scene is going to end when they burst in. The violent slaughtering of Lady Macduff and her children is visceral and gross.

Farber uses mobile transparent screens which serve to hide ‘asides,’ allow us to spy on characters, or serve as mirrors for them. There is a crucial water tap in which Lady Macbeth tries to wash away her sin and which eventually floods the stage, adding to the Scottish ‘dreich.’

Peter Rice’s sound design and Tom Lane’s electronic score are brilliantly employed and enhanced by Aoife Burke’s powerful onstage playing. Her plangent cello perfectly underscores all that pain or menace. Akiya Henry’s acapalla singing too is another highlight and she’s also an impressive Lady Macduff.

Ronan’s Lady M is girlishly fashionable yet totally in control of her politician at the same time, expertly covering up for him when he totally loses it during an important address. She deftly calibrates the quick descent into madness after witnessing the brutal savagery of the murder of the Macduff children.

Ronan keeps her Dublin accent for this which is odd, as the rest of the cast use a Scottish lilt. It doesn’t really help and at times diminishes her authority. Lady M, that inveterate schemer, you’d think, would never individuate herself by sounding different from the Court as it might hinder her upward mobility.

McArdle is always strong but is best in the final act when his virile swagger lets rip. Early on you don’t fully believe that this sturdy chap would slide into jittery procrastinating.

It ends with a flash of young, vengeful, Fleance newly returned and bearing an automatic rifle. The cycle will continue…

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