THEATRE REVIEW: The Tragedy Of Macbeth starring James McArdle & Saoirse Ronan at Almeida Theatre

WORTH A LOOK?: *****

WHEN?: Monday 4 October, runs to 20 November 2021 extended to 27 November 2021 with livestream option

RUNTIME: 190 minutes (including a 20-minute interval)

Prolonged handwashing is forthright in our consciousness post-Covid and perhaps, like Chekhov’s gun, it should have come as little surprise that the onstage tap in this dreamlike, almost modern-day production should play such a pivotal role.

  • Read on for reasons including how good Ronan is in her UK stage debut but how it will be McArdle’s brutish Macbeth that will be remembered

We’re at the 2nd preview of this production engineered by 1 of the world’s most interesting theatre directors and we’re reminded of the first 6 rows of a recent production of Singin’ In The Rain described as being in the ‘splash zone’ as we quite literally receive 2 facefuls of water in this show’s drenched and violent conclusion.

The clue was perhaps on the Almeida’s own website which described it as an ‘elemental production about a world in transformation, the shadows in all of us, and one couple’s spine-chilling quest for power’ and, as we think director Yaël Farber joins us in the front row tonight, we guess this is very much part of her unforgettable vision.

Ronan, of course, is making her UK stage debut as Lady Macbeth and if you enjoy film you might remember her Oscar nominations for performances in movies as diverse as Lady Bird, Little Women and Brooklyn although we have reviewed her on this site in Ammonite and Mary Queen Of Scots.

She made her stage debut on Broadway in Ivo van Hove’s The Crucible in 2016 and it is actually Farber’s incredible interpretation of that play 2 years earlier which we most recently saw at the Old Vic which was in the round with memorable witches as we have here.

Here William Gaunt’s Duncan moves with the aid of a wheelchair which singles this out as a Macbeth with a modern eye. We were reminded of Robert Icke’s Hamlet at this venue by the use of see-through screens to allow action to take place in the audience’s view and hearing but seemingly unobserved by others on stage.

Act 2 opens with the cheeky use of Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again as Macbeth begins to question his sanity as he is haunted by the ghost of the man whose murder he has ordered.

We enjoyed McArdle speaking in his natural Scottish accent and Ronan in her native Irish as well as the former donning a kilt and opting to spend much of the action topless to eccentuate what a brutish warrior he has become.

A bed features heavily in the production as Macbeth and his wife are troubled by nightmares not least when the witches, or ‘wyrd sisters’ as they are described here, literally join Macbeth between the sheets as he seeks their guidance on his fortunes.

The physical manifestation of Lady Macbeth’s guilt as she rubs at her hands, complaining ‘out damn spot’ at an imagined stain that does not appear there to the audience, assumes much greater significance in these pandemic-riddled times.

For those like us who have enjoyed Ronan’s many fine and strong celluloid roles, hers is a Lady Macbeth of which to savour. The character is offered some redemption here but Ronan is at her strongest when complaining to Macbeth that she would have murdered Duncan herself if he hadn’t quite looked as much like her father.

Ronan has appeared previously on film with McArdle (Angels In America, National Theatre) and we think however it is his towering performance in the titular role that will be most remembered here.

There’s great range as he moves from unsure conniving, through insanity to a machine gun-wielding wrecklessness to a conclusion we won’t spoil but let’s just say that onstage tap gets a thorough workout and if you’re close to the stage please prepare to get a little wet.

We’re not big lovers of the Scottish play and were disappointed by the National’s 2018 version starring Rory Kinnear but this is beautifully realised not least with a lighting that shifts from stark to inviting.

The staging is inventive and the chemistry between both leads electric. It’s definitely London’s hottest theatre ticket and we would recommend you see it here in the beautiful intimacy of this 325-seater before its inevitable transfer somewhere bigger in either London’s West End or Broadway.

  • Picture by Marc Brenner via Facebook courtesy Almeida Tickets
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