'Macbeth' review – part action hero, part politician, Max Bennett compels throughout

Read our three-star review of Macbeth, directed by Abigail Graham, now in performances at Shakespeare's Globe to 28 October.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

London’s many Macbeths are kickstarted by this efficient if rather colorless production for Shakespeare’s Globe, following which David Tennant and Ralph Fiennes will have a go at the murderous Thane inhabited this time round by a mega-buff Max Bennett.

Too little seen of late on the London stage, Bennett suggests an action movie hero one minute, sleekly suited political operator the next, only to appear midway through as if he were King Charles en route to a coronation sure to keep the citizens mighty afeared.

Rattling through the verse, Bennett compels throughout in a production, directed by Abigail Graham, that makes notably cheeky use of the Globe’s yard. Bennett at one point snatches a drink from an unsuspecting groundling and proceeds to gulp it down: no word as to whether this playgoer was subsequently offered a compensatory beverage.

Whether lifted to his feet by a bloodied Banquo or zipped into a body bag within which he manages somehow to sit up, this Macbeth is restlessly watchable, reappearing at one point in a tux as if about to walk the red carpet.

What this modern-dress staging is saying more generally is difficult to determine, notwithstanding a provocative programme essay about Shakespeare’s tragedy as a prologue to totalitarian misrule.

Newcomers to the play may thrill at the witches here performed by three men in hazmat suits who show up in different guises throughout – murderers included. Of this sometimes-cannibalistic trio, the irrepressible Calum Callaghan, doubling as the Porter, makes the strongest impression.

But you don’t get much in the way of a defining rapport, whether good or ill, between Macbeth and his childless Lady (Matti Houghton) in a staging packed with children to remind us of a heroine who asks early on to be unsexed. This spouse may ask to be filled with “direst cruelty” but Houghton rarely suggests the demons coursing within, and the character’s seminal hand-washing has the feel here of a drama school exercise.

Elsewhere, there’s the gender-flipping and conflating of roles we’ve come to expect at the Globe, and I could swear I heard Macduff address Malcolm at one point as a “weirdo” – a colloquialism in keeping with the Spiderman costume worn by one of the young boys.

The specifics of violence are keenly noted: hospital gurneys feature prominently, as does a blender that mixes body parts to a pulp guaranteed to put you off your breakfast smoothie for months. There’s a vivid head-snapping scene, and the Globe’s signature decor has been wrapped in grey as if to indicate from the start a drab, featureless world that allows killing machines to take all-too-clinical root. (The designer is Ti Green.)

Certain moments ring out. Malcolm’s admission that he is “yet unknown to woman” gets an audible response from an audience prompted perhaps to speculate on the character’s sexuality – or virginal youthfulness. And Tamzin Griffin gives off an impressive hauteur as the doomed Duncan, here reconceived as a cream-suited queen.

Five musicians create a brooding a cappella soundscape in what is also that rare Globe venture not to culminate in a closing dance. In context, the absence of the usual festive cap on proceedings seems illustrative of the dampened-down nature of the production as a whole.

The sound and fury of this fiendishly difficult play are there to be heard, not least when Bennett takes the reins (and reigns). But what does it all signify on this occasion? Not overly much.

Macbeth is at Shakespeare's Globe through 28 October. Book Macbeth tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Macbeth at Shakespeare's Globe (Photo by Johan Persson)

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