Saoirse Ronan in The Tragedy of Macbeth
These words, used throughout the promotion for the Almeida’s exquisite play The Tragedy of Macbeth, are typically held up as signs of Macbeth’s simultaneous ambition and guilt. Yet here it comes across far more literally; this Macbeth is all about desire. The play presents a central relationship which feels distinctively modern in its toxic consequences and the sublime Saoirse Ronan and James McArdle convey a tragedy caused by a fatal mixture of ambition, insecurity and mutual lust.
Director Yaël Farber has said that ‘People tend to think of this as a couple who have transcended morality but in many ways it’s one of the most functional marriages Shakespeare has written.’ Here, the Macbeths are deeply loving, yet capable of cruelty to each other as well others. Lady Macbeth goads her husband with taunts of inadequacy when his qualms over the morality of regicide threaten to halt their murderous plans. The marriage is truly alive and in the opening act the couple are incandescent with sexual attraction; they seem aroused by the power that seems within reach and hatch their plan in a fit of passion on their marital bed.
One of the reasons the theme of sexual potency seems so present here is perhaps because Farber uses it to examine the issue of childlessness – or, more specifically, child loss – in far more detail than many recent productions. ‘I have given suck’, Lady Macbeth famously says in Act 1, begging the question of where these children are in the play itself. Perhaps they are dead, or have come from a previous marriage, but the extent to which they constitute a significant offstage presence is one of the main decisions a director of Macbeth must make.
This production was announced as a ‘feminist’ version of Shakespeare’s tragedy, yet many recent productions’ feminism has made them uncomfortable in tying a woman’s identity to her (lack of) motherhood. Thus, they often simply eschew the psychological possibilities of the absent children. Yet without it, Lady Macbeth’s character becomes unfortunately thin – un-feminist in a different way.
Here, Farber seems to have made a definite decision about the status of Lady Macbeth’s children. The three suited wyrd sisters, ethereal and spirit-like, function as intermediaries between the worlds of the living and the dead. They beckon Lady Macduff (a compelling Akiya Henry), her children and eventually Lady Macbeth as they die. Throughout the play, they hold three blankets. The trio cradled the sheets as if they were the swaddling clothes of new-borns. I wondered if they represented dead children, three losses that haunt the Macbeths, as much as they attempt to avoid confronting their grief. Heartbreakingly, the blankets are routinely spread out to form the bed in which these three dead children were likely conceived.
As a result, Lady Macbeth’s notorious pronouncement ‘unsex me here’ seems like a response to the trauma of child loss, attempting to dissociate from her bodily relationship to them and suppress all maternal instincts. She swears off children in favour of power – just as Macbeth starts saying that her offspring should ‘compose nothing but males’. As a royal wife, she is expected to stifle her trauma in service of a doomed line of succession.
The vocal refrain ‘Come Away’ – lyrics taken from Thomas Middleton’s The Witch (c.1615) – is sung plaintively by the character of Lady Macduff, accompanied by Aoife Burke’s melancholy cello. (Tom Lane’s score is stunning throughout.) The words of this recurring tune ultimately seem to beckon Lady Macbeth to join her children in the grave.
However, Lady Macbeth is not simply trapped by the patriarchal demands of her husband. Farber makes small emendations to the play in order to ensure what is the case at the beginning remains true throughout: this is equally the tragedy of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.
In a particularly judicious edit to the text, Farber gives Lady Macbeth the line ‘Who can be wise, amazed, temp’rate, and furious, / Loyal and neutral in a moment? No man’ when Macbeth confesses the rage-fuelled murder of the king’s grooms. The scene, as written, has little for her to do but be distraught at the murder of Duncan. The extent to which this is feigned or represents a first bout of guilt is for directors to experiment with. Ronan invests Lady Macbeth’s clear fakery with an almost comic edge. Her sadness evaporates when her husband falters. Admitting murder of the king’s grooms, it almost seems as if his entire resolve is wobbling. His words dry up and on the cusp of being found out, Lady Macbeth intervenes with a sudden burst of controlled rhetoric – words usually spoken by Macbeth in defending himself. In these radical yet subtle alterations, Farber’s feminist vision crystallises. The responsibility for the murder and the subsequent power struggle is shared between them.
Ronan recently told the BBC that Kim Kardashian and Kanye West were part of their inspiration for the leading roles here and though I wasn’t particularly struck by the comparison in the performances, Farber does emphasise the play’s central relationship as something both private and public. Never is this more apparent than in the banquet scene, where Macbeth’s horror and guilt are treated as a public embarrassment and PR disaster by his wife. She springs to his defence over the microphone, dismissing the outburst as a ‘custom’, whilst inwardly seething at her husband’s failure to maintain his public image. Just as when she defends his murder of the king’s guards, his shortcomings are supplemented by her intervention. Lady Macbeth ‘smear[s] / The sleepy grooms with blood’ when her husband cannot out of guilt whilst she has been unable to commit the act herself due to Duncan’s likeness to her father. The Macbeths’ relationship is a fatally toxic; each pushes the other to violence neither would have been otherwise capable of enacting. The result is totally compelling.
I cannot recall seeing any Macbeth before which has made the return after the interval more thrilling than what has come before it. Arguably one of the flaws of the text on the page is the contrast between the drive of the first three acts and the more meandering downfall. Macbeth’s return to the witches sometimes comes across as an attempt to inject stakes back into a play whose psychological tension has dissipated into a more underwhelming account of military manoeuvres.
In another small textual alteration, Farber has Lady Macbeth deliver the messenger’s warning to Lady Macduff. She should flee with her children immediately if she is to survive. Yet they are interrupted by the arrival of the murderers. Thus, Lady Macbeth is forced to watch in silent horror as the family is killed before her eyes. The grimness of murder, with screaming children and a stabbed, then drowned Lady Macduff, cannot be dressed up in the borrowed robes of noble language. Macbeth describes King Duncan’s murder as an ‘assassination’. This is a brutal slaughtering.
In this scene, Farber almost entirely solves the usual problem of Lady Macbeth’s madness. Like Ophelia in Hamlet, the role’s early promise usually gives way to an underwritten conclusion. Where Macbeth fights to his last breath, mad with paranoia, Lady Macbeth sleepwalks her way to a quiet end. Yet placing her onstage for the murder of Macduff’s family provides a vital point of transition in her arc. Here, it is the murder of children that presages Lady Macbeth’s decline. Her earlier claim that she would have ‘plucked [her] nipple from his boneless gums / And dashed the brains out’ of her own child contrasts her sudden confrontation with the horrors of child death. The ‘milk of human kindness’ returns, the maternal instincts she has repeatedly sworn remembered. The impossibility of living a life with her grief forever suppressed is written across Saoirse Ronan’s haunted expression – a truly great performance, alive with painful psychological truth. Thus, Lady Macbeth’s madness stems not from simple guilt, or a heavily gendered inner weakness as is so often unfortunately implied, but from the awful fact that the repression of her own grief has reproduced it so brutally in others.
However, this momentous scene is unfortunately followed by a long exchange between Macduff and Malcolm. The production is not short – at over three hours – and whilst it does not feel it, this long scene is a rare moment where I was left wanting less rather than more. The arrival of Ross with the news of the murdered Macduff family is deeply moving, but it comes at the end of a scene which has sapped some of the production’s considerable momentum. After all, as McArdle has said in interviews, the play (and especially this version) is a ‘love story’. At this point I yearned instead to see how the action was affecting the Macbeths’ marriage – or indeed, whether they speak to each other at all. Shakespeare’s text can only be stretched so far though. Perhaps this is why Act 4 and 5 are often less satisfying; Macbeth and Lady Macbeth never interact onstage after Act 3.
I have only one other major reservation about this production. At the end of the play, after Macduff proclaims Malcolm’s accession to the throne, the wyrd sisters re-emerge to speak their opening lines again. ‘Hover through the fog and filthy air’, they say as the lights come up on Fleance, sat in a chair with a gun cocked. The message is clear: tragedy is a wheel that will never stop turning. Power corrupts, as does the desire for it. There is no stable throne. (Though, of course, when performed for James I, the original play’s surface meaning was that the line of succession should be respected as the only path to stability.)
It is unfortunate that the ending here was played out in a very similar fashion only three years ago, in Polly Findlay’s horror-inflected RSC version. There the death of Duncan set a clock in motion, counting down from two hours until the death of Macbeth (Christopher Eccleston). At the end, the clock rapidly wound back up, implying Fleance’s role in a continued tragic cycle. I found this moment to be the most compelling aspect of a partly successful version of the play. Yet it struck me as by far the weakest part of Farber’s triumphant production.
Though I felt a sudden sense of unoriginality in an otherwise innovative production, I was mainly disappointed by how ill-fitting the ending seemed to this version of the play as a whole. Where Findlay’s take explored the corrupting nature of male power, with Lady Macbeth pushed aside by her warring husband, Farber’s tragedy hinges on their toxic collaboration. The tragedy is dual. Therefore, suggesting Fleance will inevitably instigate another cycle of violence somewhat undermines the overall message.
The ending works structurally; the final image before the interval is of Fleance screaming over his father’s corpse so it makes this a fitting endnote. Ross Anderson lends Banquo a striking insistence early in the play, demanding a royal prophecy from the witches with the same force as Macbeth himself which foreshadows this ending. Yet the production extendedly suggests the tragedy is specific to Macbeth and Lady Macbeth themselves. Without their mutual strengths and weaknesses, their ambition, Lady Macbeth’s streak of cruelty and their passionate sexual magnetism, Duncan would have remained king. Though the play did not leave me assured of the stability of Scotland’s throne – far from it – the suggestion that a tragedy like that just witnessed would inevitably repeat itself seems unsatisfyingly conventional. If Lady Macbeth is the co-author of the Macbeths’ tragic downfall, then how could a similar arc play out without the presence of a Lady Fleance?
Yet despite this slight objection, it is unlikely that a better Macbeth will be seen on a British stage for quite some time. McArdle is good as a warring tyrant, yet even better when racked by doubt and hesitation – his greatest fear the disapproval of his wife. Ronan is the perfect complement: luminous and understatedly spellbinding. This revelatory production works precisely because it largely throws off the often-bland universalising force of ‘tragedy’ in favour of the specific toxicity produced by Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in fatal combination. The tragedy is felt as a bodily thing, lust giving way to visceral violence. As such, the production’s treatment of Lady Macbeth seems newly definitive – setting a compelling template for a role which so often wastes the talents of brilliant woman actors. I would be surprised if many future directors did not adopt (and adapt) Farber’s textual alterations as a new standard, teasing out the psychological complexity present in Shakespeare’s original character through Lady Macbeth’s greater stage time.
The Tragedy of MacbethWritten by William Shakespeare, Directed by Yaël Farber, Starring James McArdle, Saoirse Ronan, Michael Abubakar, Ross Anderson, Aoife Burke, Emun Elliott, Diane Fletcher, William Gaunt, Myles Grant, Akiya Henry, Maureen Hibbert, Reuben Joseph, Gareth Kennerley, Valerie Lilley, Jamie-Lee Martin, Adam McNamara, Henry Meredith, Dereke Oladele, Richard Rankin, Emet Yah Khai, K-ets Yah Khai
Reviewed 13th October 2021