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Reviewing 'Macbeth' at Dock X London: More 'Trope' than 'Transfixing'

★★★ A a decent enough achievement, but one that made my mind wander throughout.

I tend to associate Shakespeare with army fatigues, elbow-pads, and piles of rubble more than ruffs and flowery scenery. It is almost as if theatre companies across the UK have an excess of dystopian paraphernalia which they can only siphon off through productions of the Bard’s work. Director Simon Godwin’s production of Macbeth chooses to employ the same dystopian, warzone aesthetic of contemporary Shakespeare productions to little effect. Headed by Ralph Fiennes as the titular tyrant and Indira Varma as Lady Macbeth, this production saunters through Shakespeare’s cursed script, boasting some fine performances amidst an uninspired set and bargain-bin costumes.

Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma in 'Macbeth'. Photo by Marc Brenner.

It hardly feels worth recapping the plot of Macbeth, but this production did remind me just how brilliant this tale is. Godwin does a good job, whether intentional or not, of foregrounding Shakespeare’s incredible telling of a loyal soldier turned king via unscrupulous means. After his sovereign future is foretold by the three witches (Danielle Fiamanya, Lucy Mangan, Lola Shalam), Macbeth returns home to his scheming lady, played by Varma as a North London career woman; think Claire from Fleabag. After convincing her husband to fulfil his prophecy by questionable means, the two spiral into an immoral pit of despair, sending reverberations across the political landscape of Scotland.

Macbeth primarily functions on the powers of the central couple; it is as much Lady Macbeth’s play as it is her husband's, no matter her shorter time in the spotlight. Varma plays Lady Macbeth with an enjoyable sharpness. The dismay at her husband’s weakness stings like vinegar to an open wound. However, this effect is temporary, for the resonances of that most magnificently poisonous character don’t quite impregnate themselves in the audience. Varma’s Lady is blinding but, ultimately, forgettable.

Meanwhile Fiennes, the celebrity poster boy of this production (Voldemort’s name was whispered throughout the venue, as per the Potter franchise), performs on a different wavelength to his cast mates. He enters the stage in lead-weighted boots. Each step is laboured, each shoulder turned as by a mighty stone treadwheel. Here, Macbeth is always encumbered by a form of armour, just not always one that is visible. This assists in drawing out the sweetness of every single one of the Bard’s words. Fiennes reminds the audience of the dark beauty of Shakespeare’s wordplay, moving his body in order to push out or punctuate words. This is where the dissonance with his cast members arises. Everybody else seems to take a more mannered approach, which is also effective. However, I would argue the discomfort between the two in proximity was not intentional. Fiennes’ style gels better towards the climax of the piece, showcasing the growing madness of the Scottish thane, but perhaps his take would work better in isolation. I’m sure Fiennes is viable enough celebrity currency for a solo show in the future. 

Ralph Fiennes in 'Macbeth'. Photo by Marc Brenner.

Perhaps best at holding their own against the veteran actor was Ben Turner. His Macduff is silently furious throughout the final act, his fists clenched with rage at all times. Most impressively of all, Turner swaddles Macduff’s despair at the loss of his family in an elegantly weaved tapestry of anger and horror. This revelation is given a good few metres of silence, letting the audience sink in the horrific realisation much like Macduff himself. I would be curious to see Turner’s take on the protagonist, for he clearly requires more space to play.

The setting of Macbeth is an essential facet. The nickname ‘The Scottish Play’ reminds the viewer that the world of Macbeth is cold, most likely rainy, and possibly overshadowed by shadow-gouged mountains. Instead, this production affords the spectator concrete panelling and burnt-out cars. Designer Frankie Bradshaw’s militaristic ambience is weirdly stuffed behind the stage. Exiting the lobby to the stage, the audience walk through the aftermath of a recent conflict. A crumpled car burns, nestled in rubble, next to a twisted lamppost. Walking through I could feel clumps of earth disturbing the level-sheen of the concrete floors, an effective attempt at experiential theatre if not for the clear Instagrammability of the whole debacle.

Set of 'Macbeth' at Dock X. Photo by Marc Brenner.

Entering the actual performance space, one would be safe in assuming that Bradshaw has bust the budget. The stage is comprised of concrete blocks, some chipped by conflict, with flights of stairs lining the backwall. Gauzed double doors stand in the centre, effectively spoiling how the production will pull off Banquo’s ghost, before unsatisfyingly under-utilising the very same design later in the play. One would think the simple design would afford many instances for creative direction, yet awkward tables and ham-fisted staging highlight the inefficiencies of this design. Next time I would advise doing away with the pre-show theatrics to focus on the piece itself.

Nevertheless, this production is mostly assured. Despite the tame design, goosebumps still peppered my arms at the denouement. It is a decent enough achievement, but one that made my mind wander throughout. I couldn’t help but think about doing away with the prop guns, helmets, and gauzed doors. I’m normally all for madcap design choices, and I am certainly not an Elizabethan puritan-type. But, I wonder whether the efficacy of Macbeth would be just as successful if everybody just wore blacks in an empty room. Perhaps it would be even more so. When coming to watch Shakespeare for the umpteenth time, I can’t help but wonder who I am actually coming to see. The Bard or his trope?


Edited by Georgia Gibson, Theatre Editor.


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