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‘Macbeth’ at the Donmar Warehouse: An Immaculate Reimagining of the Feared Scottish Play

Spoilers ahead for Macbeth. Although you have had 418 years to catch up…

Max Webster’s Macbeth is as much a feast for the eyes as it is for the senses. The play begins with the haunting giggles and sighs of the three witches – whose presence lingers throughout the production, but is only represented onstage as wisps of smoke – whilst the titular Macbeth, played by the enormously talented David Tennant, gently washes yet unidentified blood off his hands in a lone metallic basin. Visually, this opening illustrates a quiet, sombre, spellbinding image of a man, kneeling alone in silence, stained with the dark red guilt of the murders we know are to come. 

David Tennant and Cush Jumbo in 'Macbeth'. Photo by Marc Brenner.

Sonically, another world is unfolding. The auditory experience afforded by the performance’s compulsory headphones completely elevates the scene and adds another dimension to it. As an audience, we are folded into the narrative as the witches press close to our ears with their taunting of Tennant’s Macbeth. Along with the repeated sound of crow’s wings flapping and the live Celtic soundtrack, we get a heightened sense of being wholly incorporated into the play. This immersion is not only present in the opening scene; the play’s use of headphones and the immaculate soundscape, created by sound designer Gareth Fry, make for a theatre-going experience entirely different from anything else I have witnessed. The actors wear subtle headsets, meaning that their lines are much crisper and easily understandable than if one were to watch a production normally. The use of bilateral sound mixing is, too, entirely original and ingenious, where parts of the sound alternate between left and right in accordance to their ‘spot’ onstage.

This technique was used not only for the iconic three witches, but also in more emotionally intense moments. This included the brutal murder of Macduff’s wife and son, wherein the audience is catapulted into darkness and forced to endure the dying whimpers of mother and son as they are slain by Macbeth’s trusted executioners. Macduff’s reaction when hearing of this news (here played by magnificent Noof Ousellam) is strikingly portrayed against the ringing stillness of complete silence. Ros Watt as Malcom and Moyo Akandé as Ross are both frozen in the presence of Ousellam’s rageful performance as he learns of the murder of his family, and the lack of intricate sound design in this scene somehow demonstrates the effectiveness of an elaborate soundscape. In the silence, Macduff is given space to grieve. His mind is clear, determined, focused on getting revenge for the sake of his family.

In sharp contrast, Macbeth’s monologues, though frequently having silence as a backdrop, are subject to the repeating giggles of the three witches; the flapping of wings; the echoing of words. Tennant glances around at the audience, jittery, as if we might be able to help him in regaining his sanity, but his Macbeth is a man lost to the world around him. His murmured ramblings are a perfect picture of a man drunk on his own greed and capacity for power. The incorporated sound effects demonstrate his unfocused and guilt-ridden mind as he attempts to grapple with power and blame simultaneously. His thoughts are muddled and so is our auditory experience, but never in a way that detracts from the plot, or is confusing to listen to. 

David Tennant in Macbeth. Photo by Marc Brenner.

Tennant’s performance is worthy not only of a separate paragraph, but of an entirely separate article. His depiction of Macbeth is tight and joltingly transportative. It’s easy to forget that he is simply acting. One scene in particular stands out; the Macbeths’ dinner party, which sees all the characters grouped onstage and dancing together to the sound of the live Celtic band, is harshly cut short by a singular blue light that singles out Tennant. He goes on to deliver a skittish monologue fraught with turmoil, aching to transform into confidence, as his friends, wife, and enemies dance around him. As an audience, we feel complicit in his paranoia and truly feel everything he says. Even in Macbeth’s most cold and vengefully mad moments towards the end of the play, Tennant’s performance is pliant to understanding and invites the audience to see things from his character’s point of view, flawed as this view may be.

As an audience, we go from being wary of Macbeth to being inside his head, as his consciousness forces him to relive the witches’ prophecy (something that only we and Macbeth can hear). Later, we gasp in shock and rage as he kills a child with a chilling and definitive snap of the neck, augmented by Fry’s soundscape. Tennant’s interpretation of the character is intensely compelling, even his most brutal moments never paint him as weakened. You don’t root for Macbeth, per se, but you still want to follow him closely to his last move, just to hear what he says next, just to watch him loom over the other characters, just to see the unexpected ways in which he reacts to what people say of and to him. Even his death is masterfully portrayed by Tennant. All of Macbeth’s glory, which he has been building towards, is stripped away from him in seconds. The look on Macbeth’s face as he collapses to the ground, and blood coats the pristine white of the Donmar Warehouse’s stage, is genuinely haunting and a true testament to Tennant’s unparalleled talent and commitment to acting.

Although I will admit that I originally had my sights set on Webster’s Macbeth solely to witness David Tennant performing Shakespeare live, I was unsurprisingly bowled over by the astounding talent of every single person in the all-Scottish cast (something that helped immerse the audience into the play even further). The fact that the performance only has fifteen actors makes it so that every actor gets the chance to truly demonstrate their sharp skill and ability to fit the mould of different characters. The very young Casper Knopf, for instance, who plays Macduff’s son, manages to illustrate the innocence of a life still untarnished by the horrors of war and power that torment the adults around him, as well as the gnawing guilt of childlessness that haunts Cush Jumbo's Lady Macbeth.

Cush Jumbo in 'Macbeth'. Photo by Marc Brenner.

Jumbo’s performance is another one that captivated the audience. The iconic "out, damned spot" monologue, for instance, which has been narrated by multiple actresses throughout the world for centuries, was here performed in an intensely original way that eclipsed any preconceived notions that one might have had. Jumbo’s Lady Macbeth’s white costume stands out starkly against the dark greys and blacks of those surrounding her, encasing her in a light of purity that remains undefiled even after her hands are stained with blood. Jumbo’s Lady Macbeth stands against Tennant’s Macbeth as a woman who is both afraid but determined. In one of their many dinner parties, she desperately attempts to talk him out of what, to everyone else, appears to be some sort of psychotic episode. She reassures their guests that everything is under control, although she is unsure of what exactly ‘everything’ entails. At first, Lady Macbeth gets caught up in her husband’s greed and they become an intensely cunning and powerful couple (here, Jumbo and Tennant’s performances brilliantly help the other one stand out further). Yet, her reaction at the news of King Duncan’s death becomes a breaking point in both her marriage and her psyche, as she collapses to the floor with a fragmented sobbing that makes the audience feel intensely uncomfortable. Tennant’s portrayal of Macbeth in this scene is incredible: instead of pretending to care and coaxing her into peace (in the same way that she does to him later in the play), he only looks on with disgust. Lady Macbeth’s exit, lit by her solitary candle as she sleepwalks, is witnessed by the audience from beyond a glass box, and that is exactly how she feels: unreachable, already gone. 

The use of the glass box, and the set design of the play as a whole, is crucial to the perfection of the performance. The bare monochrome stage the only props were the initial basin, wine glasses, and swords — allows for the audience’s attention to be drawn to the action unfolding onstage, accentuated by the binaural sound crafted by Fry. The addition of the glass box behind the stage, which intermittently opens and closes to reveal either completely still actors surveying the events before them, or actors banging on the glass and pressing themselves close to the action, incorporates a further element of surveillance to the performance, other than our role as the audience. The live Celtic music being performed from behind the box is as wonderfully fantastical as it is eerie; Webster’s decision to include it definitely pays off, as the music gives whimsy to the play’s few happy moments, and helps increase the tension in its most stressful.

Company of 'Macbeth'. Photo by Marc Brenner.

Another performance worth mentioning, too, is that of Jatinder Singh Randhawa as the Porter, and the fourth-wall breaking stand-up routine he performs before opening the doors of the castle. He makes fun of the audience for wearing headphones, and even directly addresses members of the crowd – this part of the performance is difficult to contextualise, and was initially somewhat jarring when contrasted with the seriousness of the rest of the play, but nevertheless was a reassuring comedic interval before the play descended into its final murderous moments. In the performance I attended, this routine was stopped mid-way through because of a ‘technical issue’, although I am still unaware if this was a masterfully  intentional part of Randhawa’s set. I suppose I’ll have to go again to get my answers.

In summary, Macbeth is nothing short of a masterpiece. The combination of the actors’ talent, the sound design, and the stage’s stark layout make for a theatre-going experience that will make you want to both sit back down to relive it again, and run outside to purge yourself from the associative guilt of witnessing Macbeth’s crimes unfold. I’m sure that the legacy of Webster’s adaptation will outlast its run by a considerable distance. If you can manage to secure tickets (just a tip: they release 15 pound standing tickets every day at noon), do yourself a favour and immerse yourself into the world of David Tennant ASMR – I mean, Macbeth. Although the ASMR is a definite plus.


Edited by Georgia Gibson, Theatre Editor.


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