'Macbeth' review — Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma take on Shakespeare’s great tragedy

Read our review of Macbeth, starring Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma, now in performances at site-specific theatre venue Dock X through 30 March.

Olivia Rook
Olivia Rook

There are few roles as highly prized in the theatrical canon as William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Lauded actors including Sir Ian McKellen, Denzel Washington, James McAvoy, and — very recently at the Donmar Warehouse — David Tennant have all starred as the tyrannical king, and now is the turn of Ralph Fiennes at London’s cavernous warehouse space Dock X, as part of a UK/US tour.

The role should be perfect for him. Fiennes is no stranger to Shakespeare, and won a Tony Award for his performance as Hamlet on Broadway in 1995. But in Emily Burns’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragic play, his take on the monstrous ruler is neither ground-breaking nor particularly absorbing.

He plays Macbeth as a befuddled older man who, at a stretch, appears to be losing his faculties. He gropes at Indira Varma’s magnificent Lady Macbeth in one scene and she distances herself, framing him as slightly lecherous. While Fiennes masters Shakespeare’s language with perfectly precise diction, eliciting chuckles from the audience with his wry humour, it’s all a little one note, save for some Voldemort-esque moans in the play’s denouement.

Varma, best known for Games of Thrones and Noël Coward’s Present Laughter opposite Andrew Scott, is convincing as Lady Macbeth, with a sharp tongue and natural authority on stage. In many moments she appears more mother than wife to Fiennes’s unravelling Macbeth and she also plays up the dark, humorous parts of Shakespeare’s script, such as when Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost at the banquet and she dryly states: “You have displaced the mirth.”

Fiennes criticised the use of trigger warnings in theatre earlier this week, arguing that audiences should be “shocked and disturbed” by the things they see on stage. The production, as a whole, is fairly pedestrian on that score, but the entrance to designer Frankie Bradshaw’s set takes things to another level.

Before reaching the stage space, audiences are greeted by burnt-out cars, piles of rubble, and rubbish cans alight with flames. It is a scene of complete desolation and the most obvious reference to the war zones that inspired Burns’s modern adaptation. The effect is startling, and it is a shame that this same, brutally realistic detail is not continued in the main room, which instead houses an unremarkable, stripped-back stage.

There are several interesting illusions, from the set pieces streaked in blood that show, for Macbeth, the writing is quite literally on the wall, to the horrifying appearance of Banquo’s ghost, who is bathed in a pool of white light by designer Jai Morjaria. Disembodied hands claw at frosted glass doors and the soundscape created by Christopher Shutt, which evokes the sounds of war, reverberates around the space.

The show is a faithful reproduction of Shakespeare’s great tragedy and rattles along at an even pace. But, unfortunately, anything particularly innovative is left at the door.

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Photo credit: Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma in Macbeth. (Photo by Marc Brenner)

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