Saoirse Ronan as a hypnotic Lady Macbeth and Ian McKellen’s Chekhov masterclass

The Tragedy of Macbeth

Almeida Theatre, London

James McArdle and Saoirse Ronan in ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ © Marc Brenner

“A little water clears us of this deed,” whispers Saoirse Ronan, crouching by the running tap that is one of the few fixtures in Yaël Farber’s staging of The Tragedy of Macbeth.

But, as we know, it doesn’t: it can’t. No amount of water can wash the consciences of the guilty couple clean: instead their murderous path to power will rob them of sleep, solace and sanity. Farber, with customary visual panache, takes the images in Shakespeare’s text and makes them concrete. Handwashing becomes a running theme: the final battle takes place in a literal bloodbath, and water floods Soutra Gilmour’s set as if making one final effort to wash away the gore spilt by Macbeth and purge his bloodstained soul.

And as for “fog and filthy air” — this whole production rolls out in a brooding gloom, wreathed in smoke, a lamenting cello (Aoife Burke) underpinning the action. External and internal worlds collide: this feels like a place of damaged psyches, warped by recurring violence and by a hungry darkness that thrives on human fallibility. The three witches, or “Wyrd Sisters”, are cool-eyed, stony-faced women in dark suits who hover, waiting for the chance to restart the clock on the next cycle. In James McArdle’s mustard-keen Macbeth, and his young, restless wife, they find their marks.

This couple have a hollow in their lives, something that needs to be filled. Ronan’s sleek, hypnotic Lady M, clad in a cream boiler suit, looks out of place amid the manly power-play, her conspiracy with her husband a way of carving a new future — one, perhaps, that steers away from their childless state and whatever trauma has brought that about. There’s an erotic intensity to their plotting and, from her, a near desperation to play a part in this world, to galvanise her ambitious but indecisive husband. He, for his part, knows he needs her.

McArdle is superb, feeling his way through his character’s rapid, vaulting thoughts — assaulted first by doubts, then by paranoia, then by the cold inescapability of his guilt. His performance is precise and vivid, gibbering in abject terror at the vision of Banquo’s ghost (Ross Anderson), hollow-eyed and resolute as he hurtles towards his end, delivered at the hands of Emun Elliott’s desolate, bereaved Macduff.

The fate of children haunts this staging. The Wyrd Sisters lay cloths on the Macbeths’ bed, bearing them cautiously like shrouded babies. Fleance ends the first half crouched over his father’s lifeless body and the second half lurking, armed, in the background. And, for all her protestations about “dashing out” her baby’s brains, it’s the reality of the savage murder of Macduff’s family that tips Ronan’s Lady Macbeth over the edge.

Macbeth’s murders would constitute war crimes — killing the elderly king, an innocent friend, unarmed women and children — and here that brute fact ties in with a ritualistic delivery that suggests such acts perpetuate something terrible. The production is overlong, sometimes overcooked or heavy-handed, and Farber cuts out much of the light in the play: the porter; Duncan’s significant speech about the castle; the deliberate upturn at the end. These choices diminish subtlety and contrast. But on its own terms, this is a thrilling and tempestuous reading.


To November 27,

Love and Other Acts of Violence

Donmar Warehouse, London

Abigail Weinstock and Tom Mothersdale in ‘Love and Other Acts of Violence’ © Helen Murray

A timely, contemporary take on a relationship charged with dark history comes at the hands of Cordelia Lynn in her unsettling new play Love and Other Acts of Violence. In this premiere, which opens the beautifully refurbished Donmar Warehouse, an anonymous Him and Her meet at a noisy party.

He is a garrulous poet, teacher and activist, she is a quiet, reserved Jewish physicist. In a series of episodic scenes, we see their relationship unfold against the backdrop (unseen but intrusive) of a society that is tipping into fascism. Gradually that external ugliness presses in. Coerced to massage her research for political ends, she resigns; he becomes embroiled in violent resistance.

But there is too an awful legacy that forces its way to the fore as their relationship starts to crumble. Both had ancestors in Lwow, Poland (now Lviv, Ukraine), but they were on different sides of the terrible 1918 pogrom there. In the final scenes of the play we spiral back to that atrocity.

Lynn raises huge questions through the drama by intertwining personal and societal, past and present. Is trauma passed on down the generations? Can we escape the past? How does it shape our present and who we are? Why is anti-Semitism on the rise yet again? When the world turns vile, should we choose fight or flight?

It’s one of several current plays that tackle the legacy of prejudice emphatically, with bold theatricality and through personal relationships. It’s witty, poetic and chilling, but the approach to the issues also makes it feel overloaded.

At first, it’s immensely believable in its depiction of the couple and beautifully acted in Elayce Ismail’s subtly modulated production. Tom Mothersdale is excellent as a man who convinces himself he is loveable but who is actually overbearing and controlling; Abigail Weinstock is mesmeric as a woman who has found stillness to be her best defence. The more he fills the stage, the quieter she becomes.

But the unravelling feels less persuasive, the larger picture less convincing. It’s a play full of pressing questions, but it doesn’t quite pull off its splintered style.


To November 27,

The Cherry Orchard

Theatre Royal Windsor

Ian McKellen as Firs in ‘The Cherry Orchard’ © Jack Merriman

Ian McKellen was recently at the Theatre Royal Windsor, playing an age-defying Hamlet. Now he returns (with the same company) as an octogenarian — the ancient family retainer Firs in The Cherry Orchard, a character at once marginal and crucial.

Sean Mathias’s staging of Chekhov’s 1903 masterpiece (translated by Martin Sherman) is full of lovely moments, comic touches and detailed performances. The use of the depth of the stage during the ball is beautiful, creating a candlelit antechamber where characters lurk to eavesdrop on critical discussions going on downstage. It’s a moment that reminds us that lives and livelihoods depend on the decisions being taken and on whether Madame Ranyevskaya, newly returned from Paris to her Russian country estate, takes the steps needed to secure that estate’s future.

Chekhov was superb on the destructive impact of people who take no heed, who casually upend other people’s lives or let them drift into catastrophe. We see that here in Francesca Annis’s skittish, charming, sad, preoccupied Ranyevskaya — not cruel, but careless — and in the ambitious manservant Yasha (Lee Knight), who casually tramples the maid Dunyasha’s (Alis Wyn Davies) hopes. We see it too in Martin Shaw’s practical, blunt merchant, Lopakhin, both hard-headed and tender-hearted and bursting with exasperation at Ranyevskaya’s inaction.

But what doesn’t come over here is an overall quality of urgency, an impression of greater issues at play and the way they collide with personal stories and emotional trauma. Chekhov’s genius was to drive a sense of seismic social change through domestic drama: these people — entirely recognisable today — are caught up in events much bigger than themselves and stymied by their myopia. Compared with Ian Rickson’s recent Uncle Vanya, this is not a staging that fully scopes the play or finds its wider, deeper resonances.

But then there is McKellen. Precise, droll, quietly observant, he totters round the stage, muttering to himself, still working to his routine as everyone around him misfires. It’s a masterclass: a meticulous performance but also very moving. At the end, abandoned in the empty home as everyone leaves to pursue their own ends, he simply lies down, resigned. The oldest character, forgotten in the turmoil of a self-absorbed household and a society on the turn.


To November 13,


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