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  1. Culture
  2. Theatre
18 December 2023

David Tennant is refreshingly vile in the Donmar’s Macbeth

The actor has a manic, eye-rolling energy and a real bitchiness in this production. But do we need the headphones?

By Kate Mossman

This will always be known as the Macbeth with headphones – at least you don’t have to worry about theatre coughers. “Binaural” sound, in its recorded form, uses a microphone shaped like a human head with a pick-up in each of its ears. Gareth Fry won a Tony Award for his sound design on Complicite’s 2022 production of The Encounter, which retold the story of a National Geographic photographer lost in the Javari Valley in Brazil and wrapped punters’ heads in an immersive world of tree frogs and mosquitoes. The most commonly heard sound effect on his Macbeth, now on at the Donmar Warehouse, is the sudden, feathery take-off of a crow from somewhere behind you. The narration of cast members, forming a kind of chorus behind glass at the back of the stage, sounds like people sitting next to you in the stalls.

The idea behind this is to create the most persuasive rendition of reality possible, to make you feel “as though you were there” – but the thing is, in the theatre, you are there. I’m still wondering exactly what the point of it was. The main effect is to enable David Tennant to mutter to himself on stage at a realistic, muttery volume, getting round the problem of stage whispers and enhancing the soliloquies that explore his collapsing interior life against the rabble-rousing and statesmanly speeches. But is the implication that these soliloquies are more convincing with a close microphone? It’s an odd experience. When you first see him onstage you wonder if he’s lip-syncing, his voice is so soft. It sounds a lot like a BBC Radio 4 play, something the Porter – back in vogue ever since Stewart Lee rewrote his arcane jokes as modern stand-up in one production – makes a gag about. Indeed, Tennant took on Macbeth for a Radio 4 adaptation just last year, which also had an emphasis on immersive sound design, but is unrelated to this production.

[See also: The madness of Claude Monet]

Macbeth is generally done very simply – you won’t often see it set in Nazi Germany or the office of 1980s Wall Street – and apart from the headphones, director Max Webster’s production is no exception: propless, monochrome, with calf-length black kilts, Chelsea boots and polo necks. You can smell the washing powder in the cast’s thick woollen knee socks. There is no bloody Banquo, and you’ll only hear the voices of the witches – here called weyward sisters, a la First Folio – because Webster’s main interest lies in enmeshing the psychological torment with the outward reality. The programme features an essay by Fergal Keane on post-traumatic stress disorder and another, by the CEO of the Motherhood Group, on postpartum depression. That felt like a bit much, but when Lady Macbeth (Cush Jumbo) told her husband that though she’d “given suck”, she’d still dash her baby’s brains out if she’d promised to do so, Tennant shot her a look – and I did feel for a fleeting moment like I was in the presence of a couple of who had lost a child.

Tennant is pretty vile as Macbeth – rictus of grin, washboard of stomach, manipulative and guilt-ridden together. This is quite refreshing: I’ve seen a lot of relatively nice blokes on stage under the thumb of their evil queens. He ought to be nasty – he kills someone at very little suggestion. Tennant has a manic, eye-rolling, Catweazle energy and a real bitchiness. His “Macbeth hath murdered sleep” speech is full of blame and accusation against his wife; his “canst thou not minister to a mind diseased”, when she goes mad, is somehow a putdown of the doctor’s abilities. He ends his life – “sound and fury signifying nothing” – sitting on a wall alone, swinging his socked knees. He bullies Macduff into killing him.

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At just one hour and 50 minutes with no interval there have been many excisions, but it’s nice to see preserved the scene where Macbeth persuades two deadbeats to kill Banquo: the square stage becomes a boardroom table and Tennant the world’s most sneering boss. There’s a great Gaelic band, featuring the singer Kathleen MacInnes, sitting behind the eerie glass at the back of the stage with music composed by Alasdair Macrae. And when the actor playing Duncan, Benny Young, doubled up as the Doctor he did so in a funny accent just like Sheila Dillon’s on The Food Programme. Or perhaps I’m just thinking too much about Radio 4.

Macbeth is on at the Donmar Warehouse, London WC2, until 10 February 2024

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