Macbeth opens with the rumbling of a storm and mist cascading across the stage, reminiscent of a bleak Scottish landscape. Oli Townsend’s set is dystopian yet gothic, with steam rising out of a bubbling cauldron surrounded by steel mesh. The archaic beginning soon gives way to machine gun fire. Three witches reveal their prophecy dressed as paratroopers, instead of traditional witches garb.
Royal Exchange’s gender-swapped production of Macbeth, directed by Christopher Haydon, plays out like a contemporary psychological thriller, turning classical tropes on their heads. This is most apparent as we see Lady Macbeth goading her spouse to kill King Duncan in cold blood at the castle at Inverness. This is no longer a story about a woman tempting a man into evil (as in old allegories of Adam and Eve) because here, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and King Duncan are all women. Instead the two of them are in it together, in a murderous quest of ambition.
Lucy Ellinson’s Macbeth is one of bravado and camaraderie, a wonderful illustration of the brashness of an 11th century military king. Her swagger and restlessness is chillingly juxtaposed with moments of quiet to demonstrate the calculating mind ticking underneath. Despite Macbeth’s crushing guilt throughout the play, this is not a person being tricked into murder but a cunning mind underneath an honest face.
After waiting in anticipation for the appearance of Ony Uhiara’s Lady Macbeth, at first I was underwhelmed. Dressed in rose pink and gold and looking more like an ingenue than one of Shakespeare’s most famous villains, she looks too sweet to be the ruthless woman infamous in British literary history. However, when she speaks the lines “Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it,” everything falls into place. Her costumes evolve from silk pink nightgowns, to royal purple, to red and black. At the banquet, at the height of her victory, she is dressed in slinky sparkling gold and dominates the scene as she both flatters and commands the guests. Her mask has come off.
The chemistry between the two actors is a tangible thing. Before the murder it is one of solidarity and warmth. After the killing of Duncan it turns thick with ghosts and resentment and yet we can still see the years of love behind it. When Lady Macbeth dies offstage and Macbeth greets the news with weary indifference it is that moment, more than any of the high strung scenes that follow, which indicates she has gone past the point of return.
Although set in a futuristic world, the sense of pageantry isn’t lost from the original work. King Duncan, played with a wonderful belligerence by Alexandra Mathie, tromps around in a shiny snakeskin-like coat, a beret and eyepatch while Lady Macbeth’s attendants are dressed in sleek business attire with blood red jackets and coiffed hair. The climatic banquet where Banquo’s ghost appears is like a psychedelic tea party, with Banquo appearing in a bear suit and balloons while Macbeth howls wild accusations at apparent thin air.
Despite the eerie beginning, the sense of magic isn’t overt in the first half of the play – instead, there’s court intrigue, murder, battle and politics. After the banquet, at the end of the third act, the witches suddenly re-appear. Until now they have been rather comic figures, dressed wild and unkempt and joking with the audience in an almost caricature of the wise mad woman but here, infiltrated in Macbeth’s own castle, we first see them for the threat they are. They’ve been disguised as the sleek attendants throughout the scene and this realisation is chilling. Silent and approaching the table they stare at each other, wordless.
See, they seem to say, we’ve been here the whole time.
Macbeth runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester until 19th October. More info here.