'Macbeth' review – David Tennant is a terrifying moral vacuum in this lean, mean production

Read our four-star review of Shakespeare's Macbeth, directed by Max Webster, now in performances at the Donmar Warehouse to 10 February.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

The “sound” part of “Sound and fury” is the key driver of this lean, mean Macbeth. Max Webster’s ground-breaking production uses binaural stereo to create a 3D soundscape, so audience members wear headphones throughout. It places us in collusion with David Tennant’s devious, sociopathic politician, who schemes in corners and whispers his darkest thoughts.

Eerily, Gareth Fry’s soundscape layers in elements that don’t appear on stage – whether lingering battle cries or the voices of the witches, whose only physical presence is curls of smoke. When Macbeth learns that he has, as prophesied, become Thane of Cawdor, the witches’ words recur, heard only by him and us.

This effect also allows the actors an unusual degree of naturalism and intimacy. Lady Macbeth whispers encouragement in her husband’s ear, instead of proclaiming it, and later Macbeth mutters instructions to his assassins, then plasters on a smile for his court: one man in public, another in private.

Tennant takes this concept and runs with it – almost literally, at the speed with which his Macbeth both speaks and thinks. Rather like Tennant’s Doctor, he relishes being the smartest guy in the room, but as the bodies pile up, and he misunderstands the witches’ prophesy as immortality, he becomes a terrifying moral vacuum, a god who worships himself.

He’s a Machiavellian plotter, too, who might well have butchered his way up the career ladder even without the witches (and since we never see them, they might well just be thoughts in his head). He prostrates himself on the floor before Duncan, but, once that first slaughter is done, swiftly embraces the autocrat’s playbook: no critics, no witnesses. He even has a direct hand in child murder; Fry draws audience gasps with the unmistakeable sound of a neck snapping.

Webster’s production, which zips in at under two hours, brilliantly harnesses the play’s relentless momentum to illustrate Macbeth’s hubristic fall. He also positions Cush Jumbo’s Lady Macbeth, unusually, as the shred of conscience that her husband gradually shrugs off. The excellent Jumbo registers real shock as Macbeth casually mentions his next murder, and she is agonising in the sleepwalking scene, her cries piteous.

The implication that the Macbeths lost a child is thoughtfully expanded here. Children are everywhere, whether Banquo’s son or Macduff’s doomed boy, or haunting the soundscape with giggles or screams. It emphasises this realm’s reliance on dynastic structures, and adds a strong psychological underpinning for the Macbeths’ risky, disruptive actions.

This martial society’s understanding of masculinity is another interesting thread. Noof Ousellam is hugely affecting when his Macduff learns that his family has been murdered, and refuses Malcolm’s urging to “dispute it like a man” – to immediately turn grief to violent revenge. First, he declares he must “feel it as a man”.

There’s welcome relief from the gloom courtesy of Jatinder Singh Randhawa’s very funny Porter. Even before he enters, we hear him letting out a large burp, and then arguing with a Donmar usher. “Are you wearing headphones?” he questions us, astonished, then riffs on Suella Braverman.

As for those headphones: it’s definitely worth the effort for this exciting reimagining of the play. However, there’s an overuse of some elements, like the Celtic folk music and the endless sounds of birds cawing or flapping their wings – you start to wonder if Bill Oddie will pop up to commentate. I also missed the sense of purely theatrical liveness, and that unique, collective audience experience.

However, this is unquestionably a slick, stylish and sharply effective production. Rosanna Vize blends ancient and modern with her monochromatic take on kilts and knitwear, and the sheer brutality – especially the deaths of innocents – calls to mind our current conflicts. Above all, Tennant is an unmissable monster.

Macbeth is at the Donmar Warehouse to 10 February.

Photo credit: Macbeth (Photo by Marc Brenner)

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