At first, it looks like Macbeth retooled as a history play about the corrupting effects of war. The drama of murderous ambition, power and guilt is all there in Simon Godwin’s intelligent production but with violent conflict at the fore. Shakespeare’s 11th-century battleground is turned into a modern-day war zone and Ralph Fiennes’ Macbeth emerges in army fatigues.
This production is staged in custom-built spaces and starts its tour in a hangar-like warehouse in Liverpool. An initial set up that we walk through – a room-sized installation with the scorched remains of a car, oil tanks, broken telegraph wires, rubble, smoke and fire – resembles Punchdrunk’s The Burnt City. You cannot fail to see the destruction of Gaza in this flattened, charred and apocalyptic landscape.
Beyond the bombed out area, we hear the buzz of warplanes overhead and see the crackle of light as the bombs drop. Adapted by Emily Burns, it is a smart, spare, modern dramatisation, in which Frankie Bradshaw’s enveloping set design is the star of the show, although there is less innovation to the production than its site-specific nature suggests.
Fiennes’ Macbeth initially appears like a soldier as upstanding as his Coriolanus, if more amiable and slightly bumbling. Fiennes gives a controlled performance, gradually becoming manic and monstrous, and is compelling as a king who has turned erratic, obscene, impish in his lack of repentance. “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,” is an intensely delivered soliloquy under a spotlight, although this intensity is not always sustained more widely. Indira Varma’s Lady Macbeth is excitable in her ambition for her husband, always human, and has command within their relationship but also remains soft-edged and vulnerable.
The atmosphere does not always feel furtive or feverish enough, the play’s supernatural scares all but replaced by the horror and corruption of war. In some scenes, this pays off, such as when Macduff (Ben Turner) is told of the savage murder of his family. This again resonates for today in the sacrifice of innocent women and children as the collateral damage of war.
The witches (Lola Shalam, Lucy Mangan and Danielle Fiamanya) are initially alarming: crawling, wretched, howling creatures. But they look like earthy Gen Zers dressed in dungarees and Dr Martens and grow more ordinary. It becomes clear that in this world, it is the mortals who are abominable, not these “weird sisters”. The inversion is interesting but undercuts a sense of the sinister and the first such fright comes when Macbeth sees the ghost of Banquo (Steffan Rhodri).
The stage is comparatively small for the vast space, an effective ploy for focusing our attention which goes some way towards creating a sense of claustrophobia. The backdrop is a steel grey mezzanine house front, which comes with good, spare symbolism: a clean bowl of water on a table as Lady Macbeth arrives that prefigures her hand-washing guilt, and walls that leak blood as the kingdom bleeds.
Christopher Shutt’s sound design and Asaf Zohar’s compositions are especially atmospheric with eerie, electronic drumming. The pace picks up and the production as a whole is a polished piece of work, perhaps not feverish enough but an engrossing experience.
• At the Depot, Liverpool, until 20 December. Then at the Royal Highland Centre, Edinburgh, 12-27 January; Dock X, London, 10 February-23 March; and Shakespeare Theatre Company, Washington DC, 9 April-5 May.