The Tragedy of Macbeth at Almeida Theatre review: Saoirse Ronan shines in her London debut

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·2-min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Absolutely believable: James McArdle and Saoirse Ronan  (Marc Brenner)
Absolutely believable: James McArdle and Saoirse Ronan (Marc Brenner)

Many famous film stars have adorned the London stage, but I can’t remember a debut as hotly anticipated as Saoirse Ronan’s. The luminous, four-time Oscar-nominee doesn’t disappoint in this stark and intense three-hour production of Shakespeare’s play by Yaël Farber. Thanks to a subtle edit of the text, this is very much a tragedy that happens to a couple, rather than just to James McArdle’s meaty, tormented Macbeth.

There’s a pristine clarity to the two leads’ performances and to Farber’s direction. The stage is circular, the set made up of just benches, chairs and two transparent screens through which we spy on behind-the-scenes action: William Gaunt’s frail King Duncan preparing for bed the night of his murder; Ronan’s Lady Macbeth left alone as her husband spirals into paranoia.

A water tap at which characters regularly wash themselves reminds us this society is soaked already in blood and treachery. The witches observe the action like a chorus, and there’s a plangent background score of cello and voice. The implication is that Macbeth’s downfall is a ritual that will be repeated.

This is a world of dour, muscular, black-kilted Scottish soldiers, in which Ronan – with her Irish accent, choppy bob and stylish wardrobe – stands out (she is spectacularly well lit throughout by Tim Lutkin). It’s never seemed clearer that the young, passionate Macbeths have been shaped by the loss of a child, or that she starts out as the stronger and smarter of the two.

 (Marc Brenner)
(Marc Brenner)

She’s his manager, speaking for him when he’s tongue-tied, and whisking him round a dancefloor in a post-coronation PR stunt. You absolutely believe she loves him but her scorn is corrosive. The power shifts when McArdle’s brooding Macbeth starts to act on his own initiative and to blame her for his lack of an heir.

Farber is known for epic productions full of sturm, drang and remorseless steamroller emotion, so it’s no surprise that Shakespeare’s shortest play runs unusually long and dark here. Typically – and thankfully – she cuts the supposedly comic character of the porter.

Her most brilliant alteration to the text, though, is to have Lady Macbeth, rather than a random messenger, warn Akiya Henry’s affecting and heavily-pregnant Lady Macduff of impending doom and then witness her murder. This act is brutal, gory and protracted: no wonder it unhinges her.

The final battle between Macbeth and Macduff on a slowly flooding stage is also visceral and long. Sometimes you wish Farber would dial back the pressure a bit, but overall her style fits this play beautifully and makes us see it afresh. She draws fine performances from the whole cast and above all she’s brought the brilliant Ronan – who’d previously only done one play, The Crucible, on Broadway – to the London stage. Bravo.

Until 27 Nov, almeida.co.uk

Read More

A quarter of London’s clubs lost since pandemic began

Foragers ‘threatening London’s green lungs’

London faces £100billion bill to hit net zero target

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting