The Tragedy of Macbeth, Almeida, review: Saoirse Ronan makes a spellbinding British stage debut

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James McArdle and Saoirse Ronan in The Tragedy of Macbeth, at the AlmeidaMarc Brenner

One of the most admired actresses of her generation, Saoirse Ronan is making her UK stage debut aged 27 in one of the most demanding female roles in the canon: Lady Macbeth, an anti-heroine who’s almost a byword for malignancy. As a result, the demand to see Yaël Farber’s production at the Almeida has been huge; the run has been extended, live-stream performances added, piling on the pressure of expectation.

We know the camera loves Ronan. Irish, though born in New York, she has been garnering accolades and awards, including a Golden Globe, since she broke through in Atonement (2007). Anyone who saw her intellectually zestful Jo in Little Women or as the life-hardened Mary, Queen of Scots will have beheld her star quality: youth, beauty and nuanced expressiveness.

Appearing opposite James McArdle in the title role (the pair appeared together in the latter film), she achieves a similar, spellbinding quality of luminosity and intensity on stage, though her performance indirectly suffers, as others do, from an incremental directorial overkill.

Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy now clocks in at three hours – roughly on a par with the sniffed-at production mounted here in 2005, centring on an archly meditative Simon Russell Beale. Farber, who made her name with a sensuously atmospheric version of Strindberg’s Miss Julie transplanted to her native South Africa, is too ingenious to give us a dull minute. But in the second half she indulges in too many slow ones, further draining the evening’s nightmarish vitality by flooding the stage-area, sending water distractingly flying towards the front-row in the battle scenes.

Such expansive gestures would better suit an epic space. It’s the first half’s intimacy and inexorable logic that brings out the best in Farber’s beautifully lit and perturbingly dark staging, which fills the auditorium with eerie breathing, strange sounds, pulse-quickening beats and mournful live cello, and combines brute medievalism with gun-toting modernity.

Saoirse Ronan in The Tragedy of Macbeth, at the Almeida – Marc Brenner

There’s almost something sweetly girlish about Ronan’s Irish-accented, white-jump-suited Lady M initially. She’s enthralled to read of her husband’s promotion to Thane of Cawdor, confirming the prophecy of the Wyrd sisters – an imposingly impassive, ever-watchful trio of androgynous, similarly attired women.

It’s as if she has to tell her face to become sterner, nastier, colder as she implores higher powers to fill her with “direst cruelty”. The line “unsex me here” carries an irony. Whether enfolding her legs round McArdle’s rugged Scottish warrior as he enters, or nuzzling him in breathy proximity as they urge each other on, their power-grab, impulsive and lacking in foresight, contains an urge to be bound together, carnally, and bring forth a dynasty.

After Macbeth falls apart in the wake of Duncan’s murder, going berserk during the bloodied ghostly appearance of Banquo (Ross Anderson), Farber depicts Ronan lying down, disappointed, remote and estranged, shoving away his reconciliatory hand – this is an ordinary couple seduced by the phantasm of a “better” life and broken by it.

There are copious flourishes of invention. William Gaunt’s Duncan, frail in a wheelchair, assisted by an oxygen-cylinder, brings a rare lucidity to the early scenes. Ronan’s Lady M here bears witness to the gruesomely staged murder of Macduff’s wife and children, lending added urgency to her feverish hand-washing at a stand water-pipe. But instead of accelerating, the action gets swamped by the painstaking approach. While McArdle impresses as a man who resolves to murder but finds himself unequal to the aftermath, his anguish manifests itself in too much old-school roaring.

The evening brilliantly concludes by replaying its opening scene, in which the company slow-assemble in a walking-dead trance, as if the nightmare is on a loop. A qualified triumph, then, but I can’t wait to see what Ronan – and indeed Farber too – does next.

Until Nov 27. Tickets: 020 7359 4404; almeida.co.uk

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