Macbeth is the season opener at the Royal Exchange, in Sarah Frankcom’s final season as Artistic Director. Directed by Christopher Haydon, this is a bold, ambitious, experimental rendering of this Shakespearean classic, which unfortunately falls short in its execution.
Lucy Ellinson’s performance is undoubtedly brilliant and brings a versatile, complex and intriguing incarnation of Macbeth to the fore. Not the first female to play a male Shakespearean character; Fiona Shaw, Maxine Peake, Golda Rosheuvel, are just a handful of female actors who have recently played Shakespeare’s titular male roles. However, as the programme notes, this may be the first ‘mixed gender professional production of Macbeth’. Both Macbeth and Duncan (played by Alexandra Mathie) are played by female actors in a world where the political sphere is dominated by men.
Ellinson’s Macbeth rises to the challenge of depicting a multi-faceted, contradictory and conflicted warrior in a chaotic world. Her Macbeth is equally wilful and fragile, passionate and detached, grief ridden and unrepentant. It’s a standout performance, equally matched by Ony Uhiara’s brilliant Lady Macbeth, whose intoxication with power is played convincingly and tenaciously.
Despite these two powerhouse performances, the tension and passion between the characters is surprisingly lacking. There is great merit in the abundance of energy and tension present in individual scenes, but as a whole the scenes lack coherency and cohesion, this further reflected in the character depictions occupying them. This is further compounded by the plays rambling structure, having the overall effect of completely eliminating the tragic element and the deeper questions around the burdens of power and the toxicity of leadership are nowhere near interrogated enough.
Oli Townsend’s set is impressively versatile, exemplified in one scene by the swift transition from the horrors of battle with men in military garb, to an extravagant and garish party set in Macbeth’s home. Indeed, the highlight of the play is this ostentatious party, where a masked game of musical chairs in disrupted by Macbeth’s hallucination of the recently murdered Banquo underneath a costume. This manoeuvre, almost directly out of a horror film, coupled with decapitated heads on food platters, is a creative depiction of Macbeth’s inner turmoil and grief. These scenes contain such an overtly dark humour rewarded by the audience’s roaring laughter.
However gripping and riveting such moments proved to be, the production failed to grasp the severity of the situation that underlies Macbeth, the weight of what is at stake politically and morally, thus none of it holding much gravitas. Eye-grabbing attention to intricate detail and the creation of spectacle comes at the expense of plot and intrigue, ultimately failing to capture our imagination
Macbeth plays at Royal Exchange Theatre until 19thOctober