The Tragedy of Macbeth review: Saoirse Ronan breathes new life into timeless words

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James McArdle and Saoirse Ronan in ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth' (Marc Brenner)
James McArdle and Saoirse Ronan in ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth' (Marc Brenner)

I was a little confused when I first heard of the Almeida Theatre’s plans to stage a “feminist” version of Macbeth. Feminist how? Would Lady Macbeth – the power-ravenous wife of a Scottish general, who persuades her husband to murder the king and take his place only to descend into guilt-ridden madness – be painted as some sort of girl boss? She is already one of theatre’s most complex anti-heroes, imbued with qualities both masculine and feminine, her ruthless ambition as much a product of patriarchal restrictions as it is held back by them. Would this production try and soften her sharp edges in the name of feminism?

I needn’t have worried. Director Yael Farber’s fantastic production, which stars four-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan in her UK stage debut, and her frequent co-star James McArdle, does not attempt to be radical for the sake of it. In fact, the most radical change is a subtle one – that the relationship between the central couple is so deeply loving. Whereas in most productions I’ve seen, the pair are stiff and formal with each other, their dynamic more professional than romantic, here they can’t keep their hands off each other. They kiss, caress, embrace. When Ronan’s Lady Macbeth learns of the prophecy that her husband will soon wear the crown, she leaps into McArdle’s arms and wraps her legs around him – they are turned on by power and each other. One of the key elements of Soutra Gilmour’s minimalist set design is a bed, its white sheets rumpled from frequent use. It is a canny choice to fill them with love; it makes it all the more devastating when Macbeth turns towards violence.

Farber’s decision to give the play its full name, The Tragedy of Macbeth, was clearly a statement of intent: this production emphasises tragedy over horror, grief over madness. And in casting a comparatively young couple – McArdle is 32, Ronan 27 – she makes their hunger for power feel like youthful impatience rather than last-ditch desperation.

“We keep thinking about Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as like a Kim and Kanye situation,” Ronan told BBC News recently, “where there have been stages to their success and real kind of highs and lows.” It is a strangely apt comparison, murderousness aside, but anyone worried that they’re in for an episode of Keeping Up With The Macbeths can rest assured that this is no flippant or flimsy thing. It’s just supremely vibrant and alive, on a knife-edge between modernism and traditionalism (right down to costume designer Joanna Scotcher’s deliberately timeless outfits).

It is sometimes very funny, too. In a scene when the newly anointed royals make a speech to the masses, Ronan posits herself as some sort of Eva Peron figure – until her husband starts seeing the ghosts of people he’s murdered and, well, loses his s***. She, flustered, must try and distract from the ensuing chaos, and gives a performance that makes me yearn to see her in a comedy.

It’s a rare skill to make Shakespeare’s beautiful but weighty words easy to understand, but Ronan manages it. Speaking with her own Irish accent, she adds modern inflections to famous lines and breathes new life into them. “Was the hope drunk wherein you dressed yourself? Huh?” she says as she persuades her husband to commit the dreadful deed.

Ronan in Farber’s production (Marc Brenner)
Ronan in Farber’s production (Marc Brenner)

McArdle, meanwhile, is brilliant – pathetic and desperate, meek and callous, genuinely horrified by what he is doing even as he continues to do it. As the murdered king’s son Malcolm, Michael Abubakar is quietly vengeful, while Akiya Henry is a revelation as Lady Macduff, full of maternal rage.

As the second half progresses, the stage quietly fills with water from a lone tap on the edge of the stage – the same tap from which Lady Macbeth tried to rid herself of that “damned spot”. It is a fitting metaphor for Macbeth’s incremental but irreversible descent into moral depravity.

I’m glad to hear that the production is going to be live-streamed – it deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.

‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ runs at the Almeida Theatre until 27 November

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