Celebrities on stage in Shakespeare's 'Macbeth'

From David Tennant and Cush Jumbo to Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, learn about the most celebrated actors to have played Macbeth and his Lady in Shakespeare's tragedy.

Julia Rank
Julia Rank

Double, double, toil and trouble! The roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are among the most sought-after in the Shakespeare canon. They’ve become the archetypal power couple but there’s also never-ending room for reinvention. It’s no wonder that leading actors are always being drawn to the Scottish play.

What would we have given to have seen Ian McKellen and Judi Dench, or Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh? But our current stars are pretty remarkable too. David Tennant and Cush Jumbo take to the West End in the autumn, and Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma’s production is currently being broadcast in cinemas. Fire burn and cauldron bubble!

Check back for Macbeth tickets on London Theatre soon.

David Tennant and Cush Jumbo (2023-4)

When shall we two meet again? If you missed David Tennant and Cush Jumbo’s performances in Max Webster’s technologically inventive production earlier this year, hope is not lost! The production will return in the autumn, staged at the West End’s Harold Pinter Theatre. The former Doctor Who and star of The Good Fight both come with bags of classical theatre experience. London Theatre’s review observed, “Tennant becomes a terrifying moral vacuum, a god who worships himself… an unmissable monster.”

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Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma (2023)

And if you didn’t catch Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma in Emily Burns’s production at site-specific venue Dock X earlier in the year, you have the chance to catch the show in the cinema between now and 5 June. London Theatre’s review noted that the “magnificent” Varma brought refreshing dark humour to Lady Macbeth, while Fiennes’s interpretation was that of “a befuddled older man who, at a stretch, appears to be losing his faculties.”

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Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga (2022)

Fittingly for audience members who booked to see James Bond on stage, Daniel Craig’s Macbeth was a man of action in Sam Gold’s production. New York Theatre Guide’s review commented that his performance “reminds us he's an agile stage animal. His Macbeth is feral and alert and insecure, someone who'd buy into chatter cooked up by strangers that leads to chaos.” Ruth Negga played a co-dependant Lady Macbeth who “conveys ferocity and ruthlessness in matter-of-fact fashion”.

James McAvoy and Claire Foy (2013)

Jamie Lloyd, who is currently directing Romeo & Juliet with Tom Holland and Francesca Amewudah-Rivers in the West End, also put his trademark stamp on Shakespeare's Macbeth at the Trafalgar Studios in 2013. His characteristically visceral, in-your-face production starred James McAvoy, a genuine Scot, in the title role, set in a dystopian kingdom (allegedly representing an independent Scotland) filled with broken glass and characters dressed in soiled military garb. McAvoy’s Macbeth was every inch the rugged solider desensitised by battle, while Claire Foy played a Lady Macbeth destroyed by the loss of their child.

Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood (2007)

Rupert Goold’s production, which transferred from Chichester to the West End, evoked Romania in the 1960s. Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth started as a thoughtful soldier turned Nicolae Ceaușescu-like dictator and his performance was considered one of the finest of his career. A film adaptation was released in 2010, filmed on location at Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire. Kate Fleetwood, who played an unnerving Lady Macbeth in a pinny, will soon be seen in Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge at Theatre Royal Haymarket, starring opposite Dominic West.

Antony Sher and Harriet Walter (1999)

Gregory Doran’s modern-set RSC production hinted at the 1990s Balkan Conflict. The creepy production featured many striking visual effects with its stark use of light and darkness. The relationship between Antony Sher and Harriet Walter’s leads propelled the action along. No one does evil quite like Walter!

Ian McKellen and Judi Dench (1978)

Trevor Nunn’s groundbreaking and claustrophobic production was staged within a ‘magic circle’ designed by John Napier. Stars Ian McKellen and Judi Dench adopted a naturalistic style and relied on their interpretations of the text to create atmosphere. The production was filmed for television.

Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh (1955)

One of the most glamorous and talented real-life acting couples of the 20th century, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh took the roles of the Macbeths for the RSC (Leigh’s only season with the company) in an example of event theatre before the term was coined. The strength and power conveyed by the fragile-seeming Leigh was a revelation, and many reviewers hailed Olivier’s Macbeth as career-defining. Plans for a film version, unfortunately, never came to fruition.

Henry Irving and Ellen Terry (1889)

Victorian superstars Henry Irving and Ellen Terry were the most celebrated actors of their time. Their professional partnership flourished between 1878-1902, and they frequently appeared at the Lyceum Theatre (where The Lion King now plays). You can currently see the extraordinary ‘beetle wing’ dress worn by Terry as Lady Macbeth alongside her portrait by John Singer Sargent in the exhibition Sargent and Fashion at the Tate Britain. Allegedly, Sargent was so captivated by her performance, he went home and immediately started work on the portrait.

Check back for Macbeth tickets on London Theatre soon.

Originally published on

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