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Macbeth (Susan Elkin reviews)

Show: Macbeth

Society: London (professional shows)

Venue: Donmar Warehouse. 41 Earlham Street, Seven Dials, London WC2H 9LX UK

Credits: By William Shakespeare. Directed by Max Webster.

Type: Sardines


5 stars

This is one of those rare shows which fully sold out for its entire run even before press night so it was very much a case of, to quote a different play, “Now sits expectation in the air”.  Well, I’ve seen plenty of A-list Macbeths over the years including Derek Jacobi, Roger Allam, Antony Sher and Jonathan Pryce along with dozens of less famous ones but David Tennant blew my socks off. He has an exceptional talent for making every word of Shakespeare’s text sound naturalistic and inclusively modern. I’ve noticed this before but never so much as in this startling, original production.

It will be remembered as “the one with the headphones”. Every seat has a pair with a clear channel to each ear and audience members are told that they won’t be able to hear the show without them. The effect is astonishing. The sound design (Gareth Fry) provides murmurs, cackles, and sinister breathing when the witches are about. There’s a raven which screeches from right to left so convincingly it’s hard not to duck. And it means that the cast doesn’t have to project vocally. You can have real whispers and muttering as well as soliloquies which really sound like thoughts. Tennant’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” was the most moving I’ve ever heard because it was conversational.  And the sound effects at the murder of Lady Macduff are almost unbearable. I suspect this might catch on  – and it provided a good opening line for the Glaswegian Porter (Jatinder Singh Randhawa – very funny)

For decades I’ve argued that Macbeth doesn’t need physical witches. They are figments of Macbeth’s disturbed mind and post- traumatic stress after the war (a point well made by hand washing at the beginning). And that’s what Max Webster has done here. There is some swarmingly evocative ensemble work in the second Witches scene but they aren’t really present in the traditional sense. And it works perfectly.

Cush Jumbo is both chilling and vulnerable as Lady Macbeth and the chemistry she and Tennant create together is wonderfully rich so the tragedy of that breaking down is desperately painful. Her sleepwalking presents a pitiful figure whose mind has completely blown and I liked the idea of substituting her for Ross before the Macduff murders to create a sense of female solidarity, helpless as it is.

There’s a strong performance from Noof Ousellam as Macduff. When he hears of the killings at Fife his reaction is electrifying although changing “dam” to hen” in “all my pretty chickens and their dam” sounds peculiar. And Casper Knopf did a fine job on press night (he alternates with Raffi Phillips)  as Fleance, the McDuff boy and Young Siward. The whole audience winces when Tennant despatches him in the latter role.

All this is set (designed by Rosanna Vize) on a big shiny white platform which becomes a table and looks hideously dramatic when blood-stained. Cast members sometimes walk round it at ground level too. Behind it is a mirrored glass screen with doors through which, at various points, we can see the ensemble  and the actor musos who provide atmospheric Scottish music (composed by MD Alasdair Macrae).

Macbeth is Shakespeare’s shortest play and if you cut the English scene pretty substantially, as here, you can bring it in at under two hours without interval. I’ve seen it done like this before and it certainly makes sense artistically. It means that the tension never flags even it costs the venue some income in the form of interval sales.

This could be a “marmite” production. Some people probably won’t like certain aspects of it but it stands for me as one of the most powerful and interesting takes on the play I’ve ever seen – and I am a bit of a Macbeth veteran. You might get a return, if you’re very lucky.  Worth a try.

First published by Sardines:





Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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