There are elements within Macbeth that can feel rather hokey to contemporary audiences. From the three witches to Banquo’s ghost, what would have thrilled Elizabethan audiences can have the opposite effect today. The genius of director Max Webster‘s production at the Donmar Warehouse is to subvert the supernatural into the psychological, with visual representations dispensed with in favour of auditory equivalents.
The trigger point to Macbeth’s vaulting ambition, the “weird sisters” (stylised in the historically more misogynistic “wayward sisters”) are robbed of their corporeality. This formlessness allows their haunting prophecies to become more darkly persuasive. Here, the mere suggestion whispered into Macbeth’s ear (and indeed ours) takes root and compels his blood-soaked journey to become King hereafter. Never has a production made real so clearly that foul whisperings are abroad.
With audience members required to wear headphones throughout the performance, the production’s much-debated decision to use binaural sound gives laser focus the the inner workings and ever-darkening psyche of the titular character.
Gareth Fry‘s exceptional layered and dimensional soundscape offers a formidable intimacy that goes beyond the label of “immersive”. That the performers are afforded a full range of vocal expression, uncoupled from the need to project, gifts this take on Macbeth a rare closeness to the heart of the drama. The conspiratorial conclaves following Duncan’s death are allowed hushed tones which mean potential enemies cannot hear them but we, the audience, can. Soliloquys find whatever volume fits their purpose. Cush Jumbo‘s unsex me here monologue moves from the bombastic to the eloquently conversational as Lady Macbeth strategises with herself what must be done to achieve their bracketed ambition.
The creativity of the binaural landscape injects fresh perspectives into one of Shakespeare’s most performed plays. When the murdered Banquo appears as a ghost at the Macbeths’ feast, traditionally we see the scene from Macbeth’s perspective. A bloodied actor sits at the table which the assembled guests purportedly fail to see. The ingenuity of this production’s sound design means we see what the assembled gathering see (i.e. nothing) but we hear what Macbeth sees (a threatening, guilty call back to the murder he has decreed).
Given that David Tennant is known for his talent of bringing comedy to his roles (his first RSC role as Touchstone in As You Like It in 1996 was described as “unusually funny”), his Macbeth follows a very different path. Any humour is delivered with a mordent cynicism, any charm revealed to be a mask. From the moment he clocks the witches’ prophecy about Banquo and his heirs, his Macbeth is marked as much as a politician as he is a soldier. The predictions of elevation from Thanes of Glamis to Cawdor to King are received with a willingness that suggests the ambition was always there.
Tennant’s Macbeth has the steely ruthlessness of a modern politician with their eye on the prize. Webster’s production heavily hints that the Macbeths’ own lost child has left a void in which personal ambition has been allowed to grow. Their relationship, compared to the fecund joy of the Macduffs, feels transactional.
Tennant’s triumph in the role is to drain Macbeth of his humanity step by step until there is no point of return. He moves swiftly from temptation to slippery politicking to murder and onwards as he willingly strips any goodness away from the character. He is extraordinarily commanding in the role. Tennant understands the measure of the man and plunges in full tilt. This is a brave, memorable and genuinely chilling Macbeth from a very much loved actor.
This harshness is reinforced by Rosanna Vize‘s superb monochromatic design. Sets and costumes are uniformly black, white (or very occasionally grey). This is a world of extremes and absolutes. Strikingly the only colour permitted is the red of the blood of which Macbeth is washing his hands in the opening scene and the final scarlet pool of blood that oozes over the white dais at his demise.
While Tennant’s inspired and compelling performance dominates, the supporting cast buoy up his achievement. The Macduffs are exceptional. In contrast to the Macbeths’ fractured sense of family, their natural state is one of loving and contentment. It’s hard to remember a more affectionate portrait of mother and her “poor monkey” son than the one created by Rona Morison and Casper Knopf. It’s their easy warmth that gets extinguished so violently that fuels Noof Ousellam‘s nuanced, heart-ripping scene where Macduff learns his family have been murdered. It’s horribly dark.
While we would happily advocate that the daggers used to kill Duncan could be gainfully employed to cut Shakespeare’s Porter entirely, a wily Jatinder Singh Randhawa manages to wring laughter by reimagining the scene as a stand-up comedy routine. His line to the headphone-wearing audience about paying £60 for a “radio drama” gets a suitably large response.
Ultimately while David Tennant dominates proceedings, in this case, it’s not because he’s famed for high-profile TV and film roles. It’s because he offers an irresistible, uncompromising Macbeth. It’s nothing short of masterful how incrementally he becomes in blood / stepped in so far. It’s chillingly effective how the ambitions of his Macbeth hollow out what is left of any tenderness.
The bleakness and the yearning void placed at the heart of this production of Macbeth will linger in the minds of all who get to see it. It’s a fittingly thrilling end to the Donmar’s 30th-anniversary season.
This innovative, psychological Macbeth is unnerving and revelatory – ★★★★★ 5 stars
Macbeth runs at the Donmar Warehouse until 10 February 2024.
The production is sold out but £15 standing tickets will be released for purchase online only from midday on the day of the performance.For more info