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The week in theatre: Macbeth; The House of Barnarda Alba – review

Triple, triple toil and trouble. This August, the RSC’s Macbeth; later this month David Tennant and Cush Jumbo at the Donmar. Meanwhile, Simon Godwin’s production of Macbeth comes with alluring casting: Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma are the magnetic murderers. It also makes a bid for a wider audience, being staged in a series of converted warehouses, in Liverpool, London, Edinburgh and Washington DC.

This is not site-specific in the way that Kenneth Branagh’s production was 10 years ago: performed in a deconsecrated Manchester church (with candles snuffed out throughout the evening), theme and setting chimed completely. Yet it envelops its audience in the play’s disruptive discomforts. No plush. A chill in the air: spectators kept their coats on. Sounds uncushioned in a metallic space. The auditorium is approached through an antechamber of destruction. Frankie Bradshaw – rising star of stage design – has created a wasteland of toppled telegraph poles, chunks of masonry, a half-blasted tree, a burned-out car. Smoke curls up; embers glow, finely lit by Jai Morjaria. Among the far-off crash and boom of explosions, the thin tinkle of a musical box.

This would simply be desolate decoration were it not that Fiennes and Varma are strong at projecting the equivocal quality that fuels the play. For all its blood-boltered dynamism, Macbeth pivots subtly, its view of what is true and what is actual continually escaping and dissolving. The Macbeths deliver some of Shakespeare’s most empathic speeches when they are most ruthless.

Harriet Walter concentrates herself physically, as upright and unyielding as a hammer

The couple are terrific together: suggesting complicit silences even when speaking. They urge each other towards regicide with little intimate shoves of dialogue. Strong apart, too. Fiennes can seem to stalk his part – hovering over it with his intelligence. He sometimes overdoes it, miming the action – pointing to his heart – so that big speeches become almost shadow play. Very clear but very willed. Yet he can deliver the verse, keeping the beat, with an exceptional direct and natural emphasis. He shades from a decent, not too gruff soldier into a snapping killer, via a period of mild hysteria. Bradshaw’s costumes echo this, moving from bulky combat gear – camouflage green and brown, all over rough edges with straps and buckles and rucksack – into formal military costume and sleek suit. He becomes his own dagger. Varma is a marvellous Lady Macbeth. Free of histrionics, she regards the killing as an inevitable career move, yet unravels with tears at the loss of her love. In V-neck sweater and trousers, she is elegant, managerial: like a French movie star of the 60s.

Billed as “adapter”, Emily Burns has cut the porter, which is on the whole a relief, especially since the evening is not mirth-free; Fiennes provides some sardonic snickering. The weird sisters top and tail the action (hurrah!), speaking with conviction. Yet their marvellous wild curses have been overtrimmed and, dressed in puffa jackets over tattered skirts and trousers, they appear too obviously as the outsider voice of truth. There is a sentimentality that, repelled by the idea of women being demonised, won’t allow them to be dodgy. Good to see real Birnam Wood branches being waved – but more foliage is needed if they are to serve as cover.

Amid the horrors, there are moments that suggest an argument about “all that may become a man”. Ben Turner makes Macduff the more admirable when he breaks down at the news of his slaughtered family. Meanwhile, Jonathan Case makes the tiny part of Seyton glimmer with emotion; his drop earring begins to look like a tear.

Rebecca Frecknall is helping to change the vocabulary of classic drama: her dance-infused productions make the barrier between naturalism and disruptive dream look permeable. She began the year with a tremendous reimagining of A Streetcar Named Desire. She ends it with a cool rethinking of Federico García Lorca’s 1936 drama about a martinet mother and the five daughters she locks up in virginal seclusion. Regarded as Lorca’s most realistic play (no symbolic moon figures wandering over the stage; all the characters have proper names), it is easy to see in The House of Bernarda Alba a picture of political tyranny. Finished weeks before the coup that started the civil war and only months before the playwright was killed by firing squad, it was not produced commercially in Spain while Franco was in power.

Frecknall is well equipped to counter the perils of British Lorca stagings: an overdose of Spanish fervour (stallions snorting around every corner); too much pallor (as if channelled through Cranford); becoming so entranced by symbols that the action sags. Alice Birch brings a history of family drama to her adaptation: she has worked on Succession, and her Anatomy of a Suicide eloquently examined damage transmitted down generations of women.

Everything is intelligent, but the purpose is too evident. Birch’s emphatic version expands the sexual predatoriness of the dead patriarch to include abuse of his stepdaughter. She brings on stage the figure of a lusted-after male performing a slow, muscly dance. The women’s favourite adjective is “fucking”, which is a joke, or a wish – as that’s not something they get to do. In Merle Hensel’s arresting design – a doll’s house prison running the whole height of the stage – the family appear first in silhouette. Side by side in separate cells/bedrooms, the five daughters (and their mad granny) press themselves against windows to watch, against walls to listen, slowly undress and sob. Bedheads, chairs, mirrors, the gate that keeps men away are iron outlines. The house is a skeleton: a body without flesh. It is a brilliant X-ray of the play: but, coolly graphic rather than stifling, it declares rather than involves.

Related: ‘I studied the play in school – I hated it’: Cush Jumbo and David Tennant on playing the Macbeths

Harriet Walter is a magnificent matriarch. Still and watchful, she concentrates herself physically, as upright and unyielding as a hammer. She has lost the caressing dip in her voice that she had as a young woman: the delivery is adamantine, as clenched as her limbs – until the very end. As the bluntest of the sisters, Eliot Salt supplies some welcome clear-sighted levity. Bryony Hannah is particularly convincing as a put-upon maid: her life as diminished as those of her mistresses, she slips around like a painful punctuation mark.

Star ratings (out of five)
Macbeth
★★★★
The House of Bernarda Alba
★★★