Photo credit: Saoirse Ronan and James McArdle (Photo by Marc Brenner)Photo credit: Saoirse Ronan and James McArdle (Photo by Marc Brenner)

'The Tragedy of Macbeth' review - Saoirse Ronan stuns in Yaël Farber’s raw Almeida Theatre production

Suzy Evans
Suzy Evans

Before the Wyrd sisters utter a word, we know something sinister is afoot. A dark stage features a wheelchair, an oxygen tank, a water spigot, and a wheelbarrow of black boots with a ghostlight illuminating the scene. As the still-life awakens, we're greeted with a tableau of a war-torn country, complete with soldiers and the title Scot picking up his rifle. Something wicked this way comes indeed. 

Director Yaël Farber's pulsating and achingly current take on Shakespeare's tragedy makes the familiar tale of the conflicted, power-grabbing thane feel eerily fresh. Each scene presents a complex stage portrait, and Soutra Gilmour's set design uses every surface, from a soaked stage to a reflective panel to create stunning dimension, with the help of Tim Lutkin's moody lighting.

The production has made buzzy headlines for its starry leads Saoirse Ronan and James McArdle, both excellent, but while the stripped-back poster photography conveys a raw sexuality, the chemistry on display here, in love and in war, is much more electric and feral. 

Ronan's Lady Macbeth is the clear, conniving puppet master to the plot, and her seeming ingenue innocence belies the strings she's able to pull to all the greater effect. Ronan almost slithers around the stage, courting her prey, and it's only when the attack is too great that her Lady Macbeth descends into madness. Ronan's delivery makes you lean in and listen, lending her all the more control of the action. She doesn't need to shout to make her Lady Macbeth powerful; all she needs is you to watch her, which you can't help doing. 

Meanwhile McArdle's Macbeth is one of the most troubled I've seen, as he starts as a jovial, cheerful lad and spirals into lunacy and child-like fear at the effect of his actions. McArdle has found something sympathetic in what some might consider a tyrant of a character, and even though we know what the inevitable end must be, there's something that feels just as tragic in Macbeth's death as in all the others. He's typically the ultimate antihero, but here, he's a little bit of a lost boy, something the final moment drives home. 

The large supporting cast are all top notch, with several standout performances. Akiya Henry is heartbreaking and haunting as Lady Macduff, and I don't think I'll ever forget the horror of her final scene. That disturbing display is only matched by the pure emotional outcry from Emun Elliott as Macduff in response. A cathartic and captivating performance. 

The Wyrd Sisters, here, are Diane Fletcher, Maureen Hibbert, and Valerie Lilley, seen as buttoned-up types in Joanna Scotcher's modern costumes. The trio moves in synchronicity and every bit as matter-of-fact as their fashions, knowing the deed is done before the action even starts. 

Fair is foul, and foul is fair, and just as in Macbeth, it can be hard to distinguish between the two sometimes. Farber's production shows a divided world, and how easy it can be to go insane among conflicted opinions and power-hungry leaders. This Macbeth is a cautionary tale, one that does not tread lightly. 

The Tragedy of Macbeth is at the Almeida Theatre to 27 November. 

Photo credit: Saoirse Ronan and James McArdle (Photo by Marc Brenner)

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