Sunday 21 January 2024

Macbeth at the Donmar, or, "Have you really paid £65 to see a radio play?"

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 13th January 2024.

When it was announced that audience members would have to wear headphones for the duration of this show I strongly considered not booking. The only thing that changed my mind, apart from my completionist tendencies, was the presence in the cast of David Tennant. He gives a fine performance. Indeed, the acting and verse speaking is strong across the company. Unfortunately this is not enough to transcend the fundamentally flawed concept, and dull staging.

That central concept is the aforementioned requirement that we all wear headphones so that a soundscape can be overlaid on the actors speech. Some evidently find this makes for a more intimate theatrical experience. I found the opposite. Although the audio does have dynamic range it isn't the same as the spoken dynamic range that a small space like the Donmar conjures without artificial aid. The effect is especially jarring when the accompanying soundscape is minimal and you just have performers talking, and even more so if you're a Donmar regular as I am, looking down at an ensemble you would usually be listening to without effort and feeling, because of the headphones that while they are physically right in front of you, their voices feel both overly close and oddly removed. I would also say that overall I found the audio sound too loud, though I gradually got used to it as the afternoon wore on (there did not appear to be any mechanism to adjust it). It fundamentally feels to me a waste to inflict this barrier on Shakespearean verse speaking of the calibre an actor like Tennant posssesses.

I might have been more forgiving if I'd found the soundscape more compelling but it's undermined by directorial confusion and, ultimately, I wasn't persuaded you couldn't achieve many of the same effects by a more standard approach to sound design. In advance, not being a fan of sudden shocks, I'd feared the possiblilities of this kind of approach (Shakespeare more as horror movie if you will) but surprisingly the production, apart from a couple of absolutely blackouts, does little of this kind. Early on I thought that perhaps the justification for the approach was to put us more inside the characters heads - so the witches are invisble in the opening scene but we hear the standard dialogue, so I assume we were intended to wonder whether Macbeth and Banquo are alone in seeing them, or if the voices are only in their minds. But director Max Webster is inconsistent - in the witches second scene a bevy of them and other apparitions are clearly present on stage. We also see, I think, the ghost of Lady Macbeth's dead child at an earlier point. Here, as with the headphones, I couldn't avoid the conclusion that Webster just doesn't trust what theatre on its own terms is capable of, or the audience's ability to imagine. While we're on the subject of ghosts there's also one serious directorial misstep. I was seating at the end of the central block, second row in the Circle. In the banquet scene the decision was taken to place Banquo's "empty" chair front stage centre - in other words invisibly to me and I would imagine others in the Circle. As far as I could judge Webster chose the empty chair approach, but for that to have the impact it should it's vital that all the audience see the empty chair - and it's inexcusable in a space the size of the Donmar not to make sure that's the case.

The staging itself is drearily reminiscent of Webster's similarly bare Henry V for the same venue in 2022. There's a single white square on which most of the action takes place, and an enclosed box along the back of the type beloved of far too many current directors and which I have rarely found persuasive. At least there wasn't much action shut into the box (as I feared when I first saw the set there would be). Apart from some chairs in the box and occasional swords and cups there's nothing else in the way of set or props until the very end. The actors with the exception of Cush Jumbo's Lady Macbeth are predominantly Scottish but otherwise there is little concrete sense of place or time, though the costumes have an archaism which led me to think we were somewhere in the past. This creates one especially bizarre effect. About forty minutes in the Porter (Jatinder Singh Randhawa) decisively breaks the fourth wall with the mocking question used in the title of this review. It's the most mistaken textual interpolation I've seen for some time because it is fundamentally accurate and it does the production no favours to directly point this out - indeed I felt I was being treated with contempt. Randhawa follows this with a joke about Braverman which feels like it has wandered in from a completely different show - there is absolutely nothing else to suggest we are in the present. This scene ends with little lecture-like
remarks, look Webster/Randhawa seem anxious to point out, we understand the clever thing Shakespeare was doing here. The majority of the audience seemed to enjoy this version of the scene, but while they laughed I was rendered pretty angry.

Webster also struggles with the end. The pacing drags anyway in the run in to the final battle. My clearest memory of the end (from the TV series Slings & Arrows) is "Hail to thee, King of Scotland". It turns out, checking online afterwards, that this is pretty nearly right, with just a short speech for Malcolm following. Webster however transposes dialogue between Siward and Ross from just before this to the very end - heard over our headphones after the company have left the stage. It makes for an unsatisfactory petering out of the show.

Lastly on the production side I'm afraid as in his Henry V the fight scenes are unsatisfactory. It is very difficult in the Donmar because of the small space and the proximity of the audience, but Webster doesn't help himself by the box at the back which restricts manouvres still further. He then goes for a balletic approach which coupled with Alasdair Macrae's celtic style score struck me more like a military review than a bloody battle for a kingdom (the score as has too often been the case in London theatre in recent years is overly intrusive). The Macbeth/Macduff final confrontation was just baffling - not so much in terms of Macbeth's behaviour since he is obviously unhinged by this point but in Macduff's delay in running him through. When we finally see blood it is too little too late, and as with other occasions when Webster does decide to show it's a puzzle as to why.

As noted at the outset the cast do their very best with this unsatisfactory set up. The text is delivered to a very high standard. Tennant is especially compelling and the desperate weariness of "Tomorrow and tomorrow" was one moment that really conjured theatrical stillness and focus and almost made all the rest fall away. He and Cush Jumbo's Lady Macbeth are a more convincing couple than the last time I saw this play at the National, but I wasn't entirely convinced the production had really got a sufficiently clear idea about what they think of each other - there wasn't ultimately enough of that electricity of the small touch or look which makes for really great theatre. As an aside Jumbo is bafflingly required to double as Lady Macduff's maid/kinswoman in a way which makes no sense. Among the rest I would single out Cal Macaninch's Banquo whose presence is compelling (it's a pity the text doesn't give him more stage time), and Moyo Akande's Ross who solid throughout suddenly blazes late on with a very fine understated performance of the moment when she informs Macduff of the death of his family.

There was the longest returns queue I've seen for years when I arrived at the Donmar, but despite the strong cast there are too many other issues with this show to make it worth, in my view, queueing up if you haven't secured tickets. After what appeared the warm audience reaction to the Porter's scene, I realised later, I had subconsciously been preparing myself for a rapid standing ovation at the end but interestingly, only a handful rose - even when Tennant took his bow. Others have clearly got a lot more out of this than me, but if you don't have tickets, I'd suggest waiting for Tennant's next, hopefully un-miked, stage Shakespeare.

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