Macbeth at the Depot, Liverpool review: the marketing of this Ralph Fiennes vehicle is the masterpiece here

Indira Varma and Ralph Fiennes in Macbeth (Matt Humphrey)
Indira Varma and Ralph Fiennes in Macbeth (Matt Humphrey)

This is a calculated piece of event theatre. A solid, lucid production of Shakespeare’s play is transformed into a happening by the heavyweight presence and onstage chemistry of stars Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma, and by the misleading implication we’re taking part in something far cooler than a boring old play.

Simon Godwin’s sternly martial production opened in The Depot, a vast, hard-to-reach modern shed in suburban Liverpool this week. The path to it is lit with flaming torches; in the bar hung with fascistic banners, snatches of supernatural dialogue mix with light instrumental jazz; the audience is ushered into the cavernous auditorium via a wasteland where a burning car is guarded by dead-eyed soldiers. More soldiers surround the three-sided stage, as a wispy phrase from When You Wish Upon A Star plays on a xylophone.

What actually takes place on the stage is straightforward, bordering on the pedestrian. Emily Burns has lightly edited the script, sprinkling the appearances of the witches - played here as refugees displaced and unhinged by war - throughout the action and excising the unfunny porter scene.

Fiennes is a physically mannered, careworn, middle-aged Macbeth, seizing a late chance of advancement. There’s an easy affection and attraction between the lead couple, and Varma subtly shows how Lady Macbeth’s sharp-elbowed ambition for her husband decays into dismay, distrust and eventually madness.

Godwin’s production has a propulsive, coldly relentless quality and some nice touches: the wounded captain who announces Macbeth’s early victory resurfaces as a murderer – a veteran who fell through the cracks of this fractured society. Ben Turner’s Macduff and Steffan Rhodri’s Banquo are strong, Keith Fleming’s King Duncan misconceived as a dandyish warlord. Frankie Bradshaw’s efficient design includes brutalist walls that bleed and a wardrobe for Varma that – apart form one awful Kate Middleton-esque batwing number – chicly offsets the drab suits and uniforms.

Lola Shalam, Lucy Mangan and Danielle Fiamanya in Macbeth (Matt Humphrey)
Lola Shalam, Lucy Mangan and Danielle Fiamanya in Macbeth (Matt Humphrey)

After Liverpool the show transfers to similar venues – hopefully with less cramped seating – in Edinburgh, in London’s Docklands in February, and then to the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington DC, which Godwin runs. The rave-style locations and the pre-show set dressing are designed to attract large, non-typical theatre audiences, even if the production they frame is less than revolutionary.

But maybe it works. On opening night The Depot was packed. The teenager next to me had bought a ticket on a whim and almost yelped when Fiennes appeared. Godwin’s production is effective if unthrilling: the marketing of it is a masterpiece.

Macbeth runs at the Depot until December 20 before transferring to Edinburgh and then Dock X in Lonon from February 10 to March 23;