In his letter, Macbeth refers to Lady Macbeth as ‘my dearest partner of greatness’. Indeed, Macbeth repeatedly describes his wife as ‘dearest’ throughout the tragedy, and Harold Bloom once jokingly referred to them as ‘the happiest marriage in Shakespeare’. Yaël Farber’s Macbeth hones in on this interlacing of the couple’s aspirational greatness with their genuine adoration of each other and exposes it as the central tragedy of the play.
This is ultimately to the betterment of an otherwise aesthetically driven, somewhat incoherent production which occasionally trips over its own image-making. Freud argued that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are halved parts of a single character. There is a truth to that in Farber’s Macbeth, yet here Saoirse Ronan and James McCardle find a nuance richer still. Neither is wholly ruthless or indecisive, nor are they Machiavellian megalomaniacs hell-bent on pursuing power. Instead, McCardle and Ronan sculpt empathetic versions of the Macbeths for whom there exists some latent ambition that is activated and bolstered by the other. This could be gleaned as a supportive relationship between two aspirational, not so self-reflective people that somehow careens down a path that would not otherwise avail itself to either of them separately.
What surfaces then as the main tragedy is not simply the loss of themselves, expressed through types of post-traumatic stress disorders. It is the loss of their relationship, a domestic tragedy that runs parallel to the political one that rips rather horrifically through the rest of these noble, Scottish families. Farber replaces peripheral characters (like Lennox) with Lady Macbeth, a decision which could cynically be chalked up to the heightened anticipation of Ronan’s UK stage debut if it didn’t so clearly extend and enrich the arc of their relationship.
And honestly, Ronan and McCardle are superb and surprising. Refreshingly, they imbue an everyday quality to these archetypal anti-heroes and make them endearingly, if not regrettably, human. Both retain their own accents, which means that in a cast where most don Scottish brogues, Ronan is signified — however minutely— as an outsider. Similarly subtle references are made to their shared past, cementing them as a unit who have overcome obstacles, and trauma, together.
Neither Ronan’s Lady Macbeth nor McCardle’s Macbeth are terribly good performers, and both actors find humour and depth in how these characters perform, or fail to perform, in public. Privately, Ronan doesn’t care much about Duncan, but publicly she breaks down in overly dramatic tears upon the news of his death. In the banquet hall, they stand self-consciously on a makeshift podium and cast their audience as adoring fans at a concert. These performance misfires allow Ronan and McCardle to display an awkwardness in each of these characters. And it’s funny, too. The laughs allow the otherwise suffocating seriousness of everything else to breathe a little, opening worlds and possibilities that needn’t be as camera-ready as the rest of the production.
It is admittedly a stunningly crafted, handsome Macbeth: foreboding, both burnished and shadowy. Ominous drone noises accompany a solo onstage cellist (Aoife Burke, who doubles as the Gentlewoman) with music composed by Tom Lane; little snippets of Vera Lynn’s ‘We’ll Meet Again’ sporadically echo through the space; candles flicker beneath an ever-present smoky haze. Characters march on and off the circular stage from the aisles, though sometimes remaining upstage throughout. Farber and Set Designer Soutra Gilmour pick up on the text’s liminality with this in-between staging, along with metal-framed perspex dividers carving thresholds that allow for slippage. Farber understands how to construct luxurious theatrical images, and she slows the pacing of what is normally a rapidly moving play to allow for such luxuriating; it’s a move that works well given the talent of the performers (especially Akiya Henry as Lady Macduff, Ross Anderson as Banquo, and Diane Fletcher/Maureen Hibbert/Valerie Lilley as the Wyrd Sisters) and of the creative team.
However, a lot of the symbolic imagery churned up — empty combat boots, a large clock upstage, a ram’s skull — remains underdeveloped, with priority given instead to the next beautiful (or macabre) image instead. It features all of the trappings of a modern, stylized and anticipated commercial success: filament bulbs, a flooded stage, complete with sleek fashions (I’m almost certain I caught a glimpse of an All Saints logo on Anderson). The men wear army greens, tank tops with combat boots, or when formal, dark wool kilts. Meanwhile Ronan is in silky pale dresses, jumpsuits and slips. There are nods to thematic elements here and there: notions of masculinity and the cyclicality of fate, but done in rather forced, somewhat predictable ways. But mostly, apart from making everything look, well, nice, it’s difficult to see an underlying intention behind many decisions (a fight in water looks cool, I guess?). The directorial vision verges on the pastiche without the self-consciousness that Ronan and McCardle imbue into their characters, rendering it all a bit monotonous at best, and troubling at worst. And this type of aesthetic is not new; so at what point do these images feel regurgitated?
I think now. Especially when such choices are made without consideration to their implications. The slaughter of the Macduff family (with the truly exceptional Henry as Lady Macduff and Myles Grant and Dereke Oladele as the children) is frankly blood-curdling and almost unwatchable. Although designed to give further explanation to Lady Macbeth’s final scene, the severity feels unnecessary; nuanced enough is Ronan’s performance without it. Painful too is the execution of the Thane of Cawdor, a violence not normally staged. These brutal deaths contrast inexplicably to the peaceful, elegiac death of Ronan’s Lady Macbeth as she slowly descends, limbs outstretched into a white-lit pool of water. What are we to make of these strikingly different representations of death? Each of them just another pair of empty combat boots? What consideration is there to an audience? Such primary attention to an aesthetic register obfuscates and flattens these moments of excruciating violence and risks perversely romanticizing moments of barbarity. Faber’s Macbeth is gripping, yes. Good-looking, sure. But at times it’s also bewildering, crude and blunt: seemingly it tries to convey a weightiness that it itself does not quite understand.
The Tragedy of Macbeth is on at Almeida Theatre until 27th November 2021. More info and tickets here.