Something brutal this way comes

I’VE got all my sisters with me: Maureen Hibbert, Diane Fletcher and Valerie Lilley are the Wyrd Sisters in Macbeth directed by Yael Farber at the Almeida Theatre, in London. Photograph by Marc Brenner, courtesy Almeida Theatre.

PLACE THEATRE DIRECTOR Yaël Farber and Shakepeare’s Macbeth on the same page and you may, in your mind’s eye and heart, picture a bloodbath of gargantuan and subtle proportions, replete with screams of agony and wails of horror. You won’t be completely wrong. Indeed, in Farber’s direction of the work at London’s Almeida Theatre, you will experience all that and more. Much more. This version of the Scottish play with Saoirse Ronan as the fraught man’s wife, spur and impetus is rich with nuance and focus, specific to Farber’s muscular and explosive repertoire. The Tragedy of Macbeth is online and onstage at the Almeida Theatre, until 27 November.

Although the work opts for a traditional blackness in its set and structure, the use of blood plays with atrocity in a way that devastatingly overreaches and underplays Macbeth staging traditions. It feels real. Blending a vague but contemporary military context, replete with machine guns and army fatigues, the work is richly psychological and historical and evokes Brett Bailey’s Macbeth in its reflection on the devastating universality of corruption and war. Caught in stark lighting with a running tap and a cellist (Aoife Burke) who doubles as a player of smaller roles, on stage, the work, on many levels, recalls Farber’s Mies Julie of 2013 and its tree stump deeply central to the tale.

And similar to the ethos of that South African farm reflection on a violent Scandinavian tale of class and lust, Farber’s directorial hand here is both nuanced and sympathetic toward the characters, with their brokenness and all. With Ronan opposite James McArdle as the doomed lead couple, the work is as scintillating and powerful as what you would anticipate. Ronan’s Lady Macbeth seizes the coarser side of being unsexed in the face of ambition with chilling clarity and the madness that follows with a girlishness which raises your goosebumps further.

It is, however, Akiya Henry in the role of Lady MacDuff who steals the show. This performer, endowed with a voice and a visual presence that fills the theatre and will expand your chest cavity as you hear her sing and weep, is one of the primary reasons you need to see this play. Also, Farber takes on the Shakespearean work with an unusual focus that lends pristine and heart-breaking clarity to the key interchange between Malcolm, King Duncan’s son (played by Michael Abubakar) and his alliance with a multiply-bereaved MacDuff (Emun Elliot), that takes the political agony of the work to a new level, rendering this moment the play’s most potent heart.

With frissons of Vera Lynn and a 1920s dance idiom, the bewitching use of the play of reflected light and careful staging, the work is immense in its reach and wisdom. And then, there are the witches. Oh, the witches. In other productions of this Shakespearean tragedy, you may have seen these witches represented by young performers, naked performers, masked performers. But the three witches – or rather Wyrd Sisters – in Farber’s hands, freshly play with the paganism and foresight of post-menopausal women rather than the ‘evilness’ of the idea of witch. Like a Greek chorus, Diane Fletcher, Maureen Hibbert and Valerie Lilley, are always present onstage. Like a Greek chorus, they watch, they hear, they comment. Like a Greek chorus, they determine everything. Even – or especially – when they are silent.

But, there is a rub, alas. In a quasi-Covid infused and confused world, the skill of filming a staged work and offering it to an audience as an experience, is complex, but vital. The National Theatre suite as well as a couple of other online platforms, has it down pat, offering an experience that is, in many ways, superior to being there. But not so much the Almeida. This astonishing production was compromised in its first half, on the screening of 27 October, by its cinematography and sound which struggled to find a balance between the inky black areas of the stage, the movement of the cast and the relationship between an online audience and the work. As a result, the clarity of the language was bruised and the camera messily struggled to capture everything. After interval, as the piece’s drama ramped up to fever pitch, however, so did the technical side follow suit.  

That said, and particularly for South African viewers, these challenges are small in the light of being able to see a freshly-staged Farber work.  

  • The Tragedy of Macbeth is written by William Shakespeare and directed by Yaël Farber. It features a cast headed by Michael Abubakar, Ross Anderson, Aoife Burke, Emun Elliot, Diane Fletcher, William Gaunt, Akiya Henry, Maureen Hibbert, Reuben Joseph, Gareth Kennerley, Valerie Lilley, James McArdle, Adam McNamara, Richard Rankin, Saoirse Ronan, Jamie-Lee Martin, Henry Meredith, Myles Grant, Dereke Oladele, Emet Yah Khai and K-ets Yah Khai. Produced and presented by the Almeida Theatre in London, it features creative input by Soutra Gilmour (set), Jeanna Scotcher (costumes), Tim Lutkin (lighting), Peter Rice (sound), Tom Lane (composition), Emily Terndrup (movement), Julia Horan and Verity Naughton (casting) and Kate Waters (fight choreography). It is available onstage and online until 27 November.

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