Macbeth at the Donmar Warehouse review: David Tennant is magnificent, so why sex it up with headphones?

David Tennant and Cush Jumbo (Marc Brenner)
David Tennant and Cush Jumbo (Marc Brenner)

With the excellent David Tennant and Cush Jumbo as Shakespeare’s murderous couple, this show promptly sold out its whole run at the 251-seat Donmar. If you didn’t get tickets, take comfort: a potentially great production is coarsened by an overarching gimmick.

Throughout we listen to the live dialogue and music, plus sound effects and some recorded lines, through headphones. It has a profound distancing effect.

I’m open to any tech that enriches a live theatrical experience – hello, Stranger Things! But this is like listening to a very good audio production of Macbeth while watching very good actors mime to it. Interesting, but not something you’d necessarily choose to experience.

Which is a shame, as it features the most emotionally committed Shakespearean performance I’ve seen Tennant give.

His native accent adds salt and verve to overfamiliar speeches, and his manic edge suits a character who’s repeatedly unbalanced. Jumbo’s Lady Macbeth, a lone Englishwoman among Scots, is haunted by a lost child. She and Tennant have a fierce intimacy: sometimes I took my headphones off to listen to their fervid exchanges unfiltered.

The sound design supposedly allows us to eavesdrop on murmured intimacies or things (like the witches) that may be in Macbeth’s head. Through headphones though, a whisper is as loud as a shout, or the constant, irritating motif of fluttering wings and raven squawks.

The company of Macbeth (Marc Brenner)
The company of Macbeth (Marc Brenner)

Again, what a shame. Director Max Webster prunes the play with ruthless efficiency into an urgent 110 minutes and stages it with elegant simplicity. There are modern black kilts, boots and grey knitwear, and a shining white dress for Lady Macbeth: blood really stands out.

The main action happens on a bare oblong dais that doubles as battlefield and banqueting table. Some scenes take place in a long, glazed gallery behind: otherwise cast members, and musicians supplying a soundtrack of folksy keening and ululation, sit here like a judgmental chorus.

One child actor plays the beloved sons of Banquo, Macduff and Siward, and reminds the Macbeths of the heir they clearly lost. The Macduffs are a constant, contrastingly affectionate background presence in the early scenes. Only one of the murders Macbeth commits or commissions happens onstage. We don’t see Banquo’s ghost but hear his groans, which sound like something from a bad porn film.

I’d love to see Tennant, Jumbo and this cast perform Webster’s version of the play without the aural sexing-up. There are odd glitches in it even so. The witches are “wayward” rather than “weird”. What, did they get tattoos without telling their dads, or something?

Having finessed many of the plot’s more awkward moments Webster goes all out on the comic scene with the porter which this year’s rival starry Macbeth – with Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma – cuts.

Here Jatinder Singh Randhawa ad libs, aggressively breaks the fourth wall with panto-style call-and-response and mocks us for coming to a theatre to listen to a radio play. Well, quite.

Donmar Warehouse, to February 10;