The week in theatre: Macbeth; Stranger Things: The First Shadow; Ulster American – review

<span>Photograph: Marc Brenner</span>
Photograph: Marc Brenner

It was a revelatory theatrical week. Wreathed in the supernatural. Fuelled by groundbreaking technology. Max Webster’s gimlet production of Macbeth – the third major staging of the play this year – excitingly fuses tremendous acting from David Tennant and Cush Jumbo with Gareth Fry’s cutting-edge binaural sound. You listen to the play through headphones. Which prove not distracting but enabling. They don’t shut you off but wire you in. They are the aural equivalent of a proscenium arch, focusing attention.

In your ears, inside your head, are the urgent thoughts of Macbeth, the spitting whispers of the weird – here “wayward” – sisters, the cawing and flapping of crows, the snap of a broken neck, the unflinching laments of Alasdair Macrae’s Scottish folk.

You hear but don’t see everything – those Waywards are twists of smoke – which catches perfectly the way the play swims in and out of illusion, baffling the senses. Rosanna Vize’s design is all monochrome, with musicians – fiddle, accordion, Gaelic singer – lined up like witnesses behind glass. Costumes tell characters’ stories: sober kilts, semi-structured jackets, military without being exactly uniforms; Macbeth in a lean grey T-shirt, honed down; Duncan (made an unusually memorable presence by Benny Young) stately in robes; Lady Macbeth nicely misleading in white.

Everything shades, nothing detracts from the central performances, with Jatinder Singh Randhawa’s rumbling Porter, doubling as Seytan (with good play on the punning pronunciation), adding a note from the depths. Tennant’s grace makes it easy to see the contours of the action: he never fusses. Yet there is nothing broad-brush about his interpretation. His gathering determination is made up of tiny unforced moments. The pause when he says the king will leave his castle the following day – “as he purposes” – is perfectly judged; no more than a hover of hesitation that summons a cloud, without exposing his intention. As he gains purpose his eyes seem to change shape, to narrow into shiftiness.

The disappearance of a ship so huge it's as if the Cutty Sark has broken into the stalls is alone worth the ticket price

Jumbo’s Lady Macbeth brims with radiant energy: she goes for the big job because she simply can’t help driving on. Yet doubt always shadows her: when she declares “the sleeping and the dead are but as pictures”, she is not rebuking her husband’s fear but challenging her own. Both make the verse sound startlingly of the moment, not by adding but by seeming to strip back: to focus on what is really there. Or is it?

The feast of Stranger Things: The First Shadow makes most technologically inventive productions look like finger food. The writing is wonky but oh the dash, the drive, the grab of the staging.

Creating a standalone play from the spooky Netflix series was the idea of Stephen (The Crown) Daldry: he co-directs with Justin Martin. Kate Trefry is credited with the script, which draws on an original story by the Duffer Brothers and Jack Thorne, tracing the backstory of a new monster and sketching the lives of the Winona Ryder character (a very convincing Isabella Pappas) and friends as 1950s teenagers. You can follow the thread without doing any homework, but gain something if you can share in the frisson of recognition that runs through fans when those telling lines of blood (more sinister because there is no warm gush) run down a face.

Clump goes the spelling out of real-life traumas: an older generation is haunted by bad dreams from the war. Clump goes a soppy plea for love as a saving grace. The awkwardness does not much matter. The real story is elsewhere. In the melting of dimensions, moving from one mode to another: video to flesh, substance to puffs of smoke, schoolboys to monstrous other selves. As the world goes Upside Down, as fair becomes foul, technology is not just a means or an add-on, it is part of the subject, our other dimension.

The opening moments – involving the disappearance of a ship so huge it’s as if the Cutty Sark has broken into the stalls – are alone worth the ticket price. As are some quick-shot horrors: a glance from the psychokinetically gifted frizzles a rat into a pink splat and sets empty jars aswarm with spiders. Lights flash around the auditorium and the sound of breaking glass crackles behind spectators; on stage, clouds of smoke swim into multi-tentacular morphing shapes.

There are wrapround thrills from Jon Clark (lighting), Paul Arditti (sound), 59 Productions (video and visual effects) and Miriam Buether, whose sets – a shadowy beamed attic, a white tiled lab, a perfect line of school lockers – look utterly solid yet which swing round in seconds to transform a scene. There is, too, a human centre. Daldry brought juvenile acting to a new level in Billy Elliot, and raises the game here too. As the villain-hero, Louis McCartney makes a terrific stage debut, clenched and flailing, utterly natural and completely otherwordly. There may come a day (though it’s hard to imagine now) when these whizzing effects no longer startle, but McCartney’s acting will go on making characters seem new.

A character in Ulster American is no doubt speaking for many when he says the only thing he wants to read by a theatre critic is a suicide note. Nevertheless: on we go. One of the satisfactions of David Ireland’s plays is that their machine-gun provocations are so widespread that pretty much everyone eventually gets caught in their fire. This is not as strikingly original a play as the peerless Cyprus Avenue (2016), where a man thought his infant granddaughter was an incarnation of Gerry Adams, but it is alive with the playwright’s particular blend of physical savagery and intellectual dexterity.

Jeremy Herrin’s rapid, bright production has all-round strong performances from a starry cast. Woody Harrelson is lollingly comic as a vain Hollywood actor come to grace a young woman’s play about Northern Ireland (“What is Ulster?”), slipping into horse position and handstand. Andy Serkis, glugging down glasses of red wine as big as a baby’s face, bristles with precarious right-thinkingness as a nervy director. Louisa Harland (of TV’s Derry Girls, in which David Ireland also acted) plays the dramatist with unflappable shrewdness: she is the cleverest character – and is, hurrah, given views that won’t slip down easily with all liberal audiences. Ireland’s determined outrageousness – on the subject of misogyny he has a close-to-the-wind rape joke – can detract from his more needling arguments. Yet time and again he nonchalantly trips me into laughter: “What if,” one man asks, “Jesus put a gun to your head… ?”

Star ratings (out of five)
Stranger Things ★★★★
Ulster American ★★★

  • Macbeth is at the Donmar Warehouse, London WC2, until 10 February

  • Stranger Things is at the Phoenix theatre, London WC2, until 30 June

  • Ulster American is at Riverside Studios, London W6, until 27 January