Published in the Mail on Sunday October 16, 2021
The first surprise of Yaël Farber’s The Tragedy Of Macbeth, writes Holly Williams, is that it’s taken her so long to tackle the play – it is perfect for the director’s moody aesthetic.
The second is that she’s managed to stretch one of Shakespeare’s briskest plays to over three hours. But if the first half is perhaps too restrained, the second roars towards its bloody conclusion.
Of all the Macbeths I’ve seen, this one gives its central couple the furthest distance to travel. Initially, they are positively ordinary: James McArdle’s Macbeth is a cheerful, decent sort, speaking the verse with easy naturalness.
And while Saoirse Ronan makes a powerful British stage debut as Lady Macbeth, she starts off more scornful, exasperated wife than any kind of monstrous vamp.
By the second half, however, they are both completely destroyed by guilt. McArdle’s burns hot; prizes surely await for this wild, searing performance. Ronan, meanwhile, casts a chill – you shiver to watch her mind crack. There’s a nightmarish quality to her restlessness.
Farber turns the screws further with some canny interventions. Children are both witness to, and victims of, the blooming violence. Farber inserts Lady Macduff and her children into earlier scenes, so we have a greater emotional investment when they are brutally murdered – but she also makes Lady Macbeth an aghast witness to this butchery.
Special mention must go to Akiya Henry as Lady Macduff, whose reaction to her child having its throat cut is utterly nerve-shredding.
As an audience, we’re implicated in the action: the banquet where Banquo’s blood-dribbling ghost appears is almost like a political rally, the Macbeths addressing their speeches into microphones to us.
And the dark-suited witches’ famous first line, ‘When shall we three meet again?’, becomes the far more incriminating ‘When shall we all meet again?’ – jarring, to be honest, until it’s repeated at the play’s conclusion, as the young Fleance wields a gun. Farber hammers home the idea that violence begets violence.
Farber’s work always delivers stunning imagery, and she conjures a murky, misty Scotland, sound-tracked by growling cello and witches’ sighs. As we move towards a high-octane ending, Farber extends Lady Macbeth’s inability to wash herself clean of blood into a visual metaphor for the Macbeths drowning in remorse.
Let’s just say, the production comes with a warning that the front rows may get splashed