To note that there was no theatre during lockdown is to state the obvious. It’s also not quite true. There were some socially distanced shows and a splattering of livestreamed or on-demand digital offerings. But there was nothing – absolutely nothing – that was like this. Nothing that felt the way this feels; nothing that felt like theatre.
Yaël Farber’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, starring James McArdle and Saoirse Ronan as the leading couple, isn’t a play that you watch. It is a play that you slide headlong into, a play that swallows you up like little Jonah and the great big whale. Staged in the brick-lined Almeida, north London, which always has the aura of a dug-out cellar, this version of Shakespeare’s power-grab play is gently seasoned with pandemic references. The aged king Duncan (William Gaunt) grasps hold of an oxygen mask as he struggles for breath, translucent movable screens keep characters divided from each other, and the newly crowned Macbeths spin around the dancefloor to a blast of Vera Lynn.
But to focus on those features is to engage with it superficially. Farber’s The Tragedy of Macbeth is both timely and timeless. It’s modern and ancient; historic and oddly futuristic in an untethered apocalyptic way. Sitting in the inky blackness of the auditorium is like descending into a pit, a coal mine or the centre of the Earth. It’s also like dipping down low into the collective unconscious, where a mass of mythological references and half-remembered images swirl together. Early on, Ronan’s Lady Macbeth is seated high upstage like a 2D-carved Egyptian goddess. Later, she pulsates with the rage of a wronged Juno disappointed with her husband, before departing this world like a silky Celtic mermaid lying stretched out in the silt.
It is the performances of the entire cast – but Ronan and McArdle in particular – that contribute so much to the sensation of total immersion. They are, quite simply, engrossing to watch. This sounds like an obvious thing to say, yet exceptionally few actors genuinely fulfil clichés like “can’t take your eyes off them” or “scene-stealing”. This pair genuinely do.
It’s a curiosity that the most interesting character in most stagings of Macbeth is Macduff. The murderous usurper Macbeth is too often a slimy opportunist whose ambition seems coldly corporate. His spinelessness makes both his own actions and the manipulations of his wife less interesting than they should be. Macduff, on the other hand, often reigns supreme as the true hero, a manly and morally upright leader. McArdle as Macbeth, however, bucks this trend. He roars and pounds his way through the tragedy, meeting his end still hollering at fate, prophesies, life and death. The only thing he can’t do well is dance a waltz, but then what kilt-wearing warrior king could?
Macbeth’s magnetism disjoints proceedings because he is the incarnation of misguided ambition. A seductive Macbeth is proof of the seductiveness of power, or, if you prefer, the seductiveness of evil. And to admit to that seductiveness, to find yourself awestruck by this beast-like man, to laugh at his little jokes, to mentally egg him on to return those daggers quickly and wash his hands thoroughly, and to like the way he holds his wife’s hips, is to become disturbingly but deliciously complicit in something you’d like to imagine you could resist.
But getting swept up and along, along and along, is the essence of Farber’s creation. Shakespeare’s text is crammed with references to masculinity and femininity, with the latter usually representing weakness. Farber’s staging summons up a masculine energy of its own, one that is raw, bloody and filled with beating war drums and shrieking owls. Lightning crashes down, an oft-used tap drips ominously into a filling drain and the stage floods. In this overtly Scottish Macbeth, when anyone shouts, they thunder and when they cry, they howl with phlegm flying out their nostrils. Usually in theatre – even with the rare, truly great shows – there’s a faintly perceptible note of restraint and control. But here, nothing is reserved or small or distant. Nothing is polite, the way most theatre is polite.
At the start and the end, a wyrd sister asks the audience, “When shall we meet again?” Not “When shall we three meet again?”, but “When shall we [the people in this room] meet again?” Because that’s the question that really resonated for the theatre industry during lockdown. Not, when will a group of performers congregate and perform together, but when will a room be filled with performers and audience together? When will we feel, deep inside of us, that aliveness of performance that is unique to theatre?
There’s a semi-apocryphal piece of research that theatre folk like to reference when you ask why they choose theatre over other artforms. They say it’s been proved that when an audience sits together and watches something live, their heartbeats sync and they experience the moment as one many-headed beast, a sea of souls temporarily joined together. I don’t know if this research is true but watching The Tragedy of Macbeth feels like it is.