The week in theatre: Maryland; The Tragedy of Macbeth; White Noise

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I have spent a lot of the past 20 years walking through London alone at night. I need to do so to write this column, and I don’t intend to stop. But since the murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa, my homeward marches have an electric quality. The air has been shaken.

This is not simply a question of alarm. As surely as Covid changed our habits and set them against a backdrop of strain, so these killings are altering the way we move around cities and the way we talk about them. I have become attuned to different words and signals. Passing a couple of women in the street last week, I heard “junction” and “should be OK” and knew they were discussing safety: we swapped notes (in itself a change) and agreed that all over the country women are having the same conversations. Recently, when I’ve flicked my eyes to see who was behind me, men have apologised, flinched, quickly moved further away. That’s new too.

This is only the second time in 20 years in the stalls that I and another critic (female) have clutched each other in fright

The stage can promptly register such shifts in language, gesture and mood. Lucy Kirkwood has done so with her half-hour-long play Maryland. The Royal Court did not hold a conventional press night: this is not a full production but a script-in-hand reading. The experiences it shows belong not to one person but to many. It is jointly directed by Vicky Featherstone, Lucy Morrison and Milli Shatia. The cast changes every two days, and features a chorus of furies. The script is available to read free on the Royal Court website – and some performance rights are being waived for the next few weeks.

Kirkwood has described it as “a howl” – which feels like a proportionate response. Its single sound effect is a repeated screaming screech – scarcely human – that makes your ears feel like naked nerves, and which obliterates the word “rape”. This is only the second time in 20 years in the stalls that I and another critic (female) have clutched each other in fright. (The previous occasion was at Lynn Nottage’s Sweat.)

Yet Maryland, which stages a meeting at a police station between two women who have been assaulted, is also a record of the ways women automatically protect themselves (that automatic glance at houses to assess which one you might knock on for help in an unknown street). The vocabulary in which these horrors and that of police behaviour are chronicled is puny. “Not acceptable,” says Priti Patel, as if she were talking about speaking with your mouth full. Kirkwood provides something more telling. Forget the odd rotten apple metaphor. Imagine instead a box of Maltesers in which two of the chocs were turds, and you didn’t know which. Would you put your hand in?

My heart sank when I learned that Yaël Farber’s production of Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy was running at three hours. And again when I saw on stage an oxygen cylinder. I love the cackle of curses – and the ripcord excitement and speed of Macbeth. Yet Farber, always a no-holds-barred director, has produced a different thrill: that of seeing the Macbeths mirroring each other in madness and passion.

The wyrd sisters – trouser-suited and serious – are ever-present, though sadly without whining hedgepigs. Elemental wildness abounds: smoke and dusky lighting (by Tim Lutkin); a spreading pool of water that makes the final fight between Macduff and Macbeth, choreographed by mighty “Kombat Kate” (Kate Waters), like a tussle of twins fighting to get first out of the foetal sac.

Saoirse Ronan’s fleet and ardent Lady Macbeth has a sharp eye for a career opportunity (it can be traced in Joanna Scotcher’s excellent costumes, which take her from boiler suit to chiffon) but is not a gruesomely thwarted female planting nasty ideas in her husband’s minds. From the beginning, she and Macbeth slide into each other’s thoughts: speeches and gestures overlap; they are as complicit in ambition as in lovemaking. She knows his early wishes and turns them into a plan – but is appalled by later butcheries. In a decisive innovation, it is not any old soldier but Lady Macbeth who warns Macduff’s family that they are to be attacked; their murder drives her mad. This seems to me permissible licence in a production that emphasises the sadness as well as the ferocity of the play.

Aoife Burke finely accompanies the action with Tom Lane’s music for cello. This weaves a meditative strain through the evening: occasionally its gravity does not seem fully earned; mostly it supplies a melancholy cohesion. The insistent threat to children is underlined: the lights go down on the first half with Banquo’s young son bending over his dead father.

Throughout, James McArdle roars and breaks, drunk on his own language of darkness. It is as if the smoke outside had seeped into him through his pores, as if his blood pressure were turning malignant in full view. Toxicity without and within. As it should be in this play.

Sleeplessness, so crucial in Macbeth, is behind the title of Suzan-Lori Parks’s play White Noise, first seen at New York’s Public Theater in 2019. “White noise” – the sound of static – is the recorded noise an insomniac character uses to get some sleep. Which is ironic, as he is black. And significant because the play is about what it is to be woke – and what it is to be awake.

Parks needles with dialogue and disturbs with plot. The trigger of the play has been discussed, but I think it would spoiling the shock to spell it out, beyond saying that the insomniac, attacked by police, offers himself as a piece of property, to be guarded by a white man; one scene features him on display, wearing a slave collar.

Grotesqueness is increased by the lurid vivacity of Polly Findlay’s strong production. Lizzie Clachan’s design is cheery and naturalistic – a bright, well-equipped kitchen with breakfast bar and a rumpled bedroom – but also disorienting, with sudden long perspectives: a shooting gallery with an array of guns pinned to the back wall has its target suspended above the audience. Parks changed this setting for the London production; in the States it was a bowling alley. It is no accident that, in a play in which every move carries weight, we become the bullseye.

James Corrigan, Ken Nwosu, Faith Omole and Helena Wilson are vibrant as the intertwined American couples, with Omole outstanding as a woman running a phone-in show called Ask a Black: she knows that she “dials up the ebonics” online, performing blackness to tempt callers with her authenticity. There is plenty of realism in the shifts between hilarity and horror, plenty of conviction (if little surprise) in the uncovering of white saviourism and self-deception. Yet the central plot device is mechanical, visited on rather than embodied by the characters; eloquent soliloquies land as explanation rather than self-expression. Might Parks see this reaction as itself an example of white deafness, a historically shackled mind? “Colonialism!” she has commented: “Hey, England, nobody does it better!”

Star ratings (out of five)
Macbeth ★★★
White Noise ★★★

  • Maryland is at the Royal Court Upstairs, London, until 23 October; read the script here

  • Macbeth is at the Almeida, London, until 27 November

  • White Noise is at the Bridge, London, until 13 November

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