The Tragedy of Macbeth review – Yaël Farber's blood-curdling terror

Asia's Tech News Daily

The psychological terror is slow to rear and does not always lie in the usual places in Yaël Farber’s take on Shakespeare’s tragedy of power, guilt and vaulting ambition. When it comes, it is brute, unrestrained and blood-curdling.

Characteristically for Farber, the production focuses on atmosphere and visual aesthetics. Set in a generically modern military context, with snatches of Vera Lynn but also automatic rifles, it feels for the first half as if Tim Lutkin’s lighting, Peter Rice’s sound and Tom Lane’s composition conjure the play’s febrile momentum in lieu of the human drama, which remains a little anaemic.

James McArdle’s Macbeth appears simply to be an upstanding soldier for the first half while Saoirse Ronan’s Lady Macbeth (who singularly speaks in an Irish accent against the cast’s Scottish lilt) is a gleamingly young, passionate wife, almost angelic in her white jumpsuit in the opening scenes, and girlish in her later unravelling. She wilts with guilt into low-key sadness and never quite becomes a centripetal force in the play, or the true “partner of greatness” to Macbeth.

There is no terror in the witches, either: Diane Fletcher, Maureen Hibbert and Valerie Lilley appear stately and benign with their silver hair and grave incantations – more like an all-seeing, ever-present and wise Greek chorus than a supernatural trio of weird sisters. For a while, it all looks and feels like a moving painting, exquisitely choreographed in its motion, beautiful in its eeriness and orchestrations of light and shade, but slightly devoid of feeling.

That changes when Banquo (Ross Anderson) is murdered and the ever more appalling acts of butchery give the play its emotional sparks, also bringing McArdle’s Macbeth blazing to life.

The murder scenes are full of physicality, with no sense of flinching away from their horror as children become both witnesses and victims. Banquo’s killing and the flight of his son, Fleance (Jamie-Lee Martin in this performance), are swift yet moving; the slaughter of Macduff’s wife (Akiya Henry) and children (Myles Grant and Dereke Oladele in this performance) is longer and more abject: we see the children’s throats cut and Lady Macduff thrashing as she is stabbed then drowned in a cauldron of water.

The blood-letting leaves McArdle’s Macbeth unbridled in his enraged anguish and he really does become the embodiment of a man whose mind is “full of scorpions”. He is eaten up by guilt but simultaneously driven on by it, appearing barbarian and psychotic by the end, with a rifle strung across his bare chest.

Other outstanding performances come from more minor characters: Henry is a magnificent Lady Macduff, both dignified and terrified in the knowledge she is unprotected after her husband flees; Macduff himself is a maelstrom of tormented energy on discovering the slaughter of his family. “My children too? … My wife killed too?” he asks in disbelief, and the scene, protracted and made central, is a terrible study of the consequences of brutality that brings tears to our eyes.

A constant accompaniment of music runs throughout the drama; just as in Farber’s Blood Wedding, there are stunning a cappella songs (also by Henry), along with a cellist (Aoife Burke) and an electronic soundtrack so evocative it feels like a physical force on Soutra Gilmour’s spare, symbolic set.

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Transparent screens are manoeuvred in rather contrived ways in the first half but become, more effectively, mirrors along the sides of the stage that denote characters’ pained self-reflections. A tap situated at the front does not feel like too heavy-handed a symbol for guilt and expiation, and it floods the stage in a watery bloodbath to fabulous effect. The set contains fire, too, and the final scenes hold terrifying beauty and a palpable, buzzing dread.

The play starts off as a tableau, with every character poised in ghostly stillness on stage, and the end revolves back to the beginning: the witches circle round to their opening lines, the actors recreate the tableau, spectres once again. Except this time we see a boy soldier in their midst: Fleance stands, holding an automatic rifle, to show the addictive, compulsive and tragic cycles of begotten violence.

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