Review: Macbeth, Donmar Warehouse

Technical trickery abounds but robs some of the theatrical wonder of Macbeth at the Donmar Warehouse

“Are you wearing headphones?”

Thanks to the National Curriculum (and perhaps some other factors), Macbeth has always had a chokehold over UK theatre programmers and as 2023 draws to a close, two heavyweight productions have lumbered into view. Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma headline a touring production that is taking over warehouses whilst David Tennant and Cush Jumbo spearhead this one which opts to go for the other end of the scale in the intimacy of the Donmar Warehouse.

Director Max Webster uses binaural sound technology to create what he calls “a 3D soundscape” so this Macbeth is experienced through headphones. And in some ways, when the technology is used to do things that could not otherwise be effectively achieved, it is ingeniously done. Actors can whisper to each other and we catch every word; characters can exist only in the minds of others and yet we hear them; the very nature of performance undergoes a quiet transformation.

At the same time, in a theatre as intimate as the Donmar and a lead cast as accomplished as Tennant and Jumbo, there’s a slight sense of frustration at how the theatrical experience as we expect it is taken from us. The distancing effect of wearing headphones to listen to actors mere feet away is real as Celtic music and birdsong witter away in the soundscape, the temptation to lift off the headset and just listen is strong and one which several took intermittent opportunities to do just so.

It’s a bit of a shame as this high concept does end up distracting from the production’s actual concept, in reconceiving the power dynamics of the central couple. Tennant’s Macbeth is brilliantly brutal, gleeful rather than guilt-ridden at all the bloodspilling and so by contrast, Jumbo’s Lady Macbeth becomes more of a voice of conscience, genuinely shocked at what is coming to pass even as she enables it. The duality of their costumes – black for him and white for her – reinforces this toxic balance and they both beautifully exploit the naturalism allowed them by Gareth Fry’s sound design.

Rosanna Vize’s chilly, monochromatic design caps off a brilliant year for her, the modern Scots costumes looking a treat. And ideas of parents and children percolate throughout the show – the child the Macbeths have undoubtedly lost, the bairns that are brutally killed here, the loss that Macduff has to fight to find the space to acknowledge against the societal norms of toughened masculinity. I just wish the Porter’s scene had been cut to go along with the supremely pacy running time here, Jatinder Singh Randhawa deliberately ruptures the atmosphere with a raucous interlude but I really wasn’t a fan.

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