DramaNorth WestReviewShakespeare

Macbeth – Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Christopher Haydon

Reviewer: May Mellstrom

Shakespeare’s murderous tale of power, greed and ambition is reinvented in Christopher Haydon’s Macbeth, notable for the casting of a woman in the title role and therefore offering a fresh perspective on an oft-performed play. 

With war raging it is Lucy Ellinson’s Macbeth who emerges victorious from the battleground; hailed as a fearsome and skilled fighter she is soon bestowed with the title of her defeated foe by her grateful Queen, Duncan. Cross-gender casting has of course been ever-present in Shakespeare since the plays were first written but by casting women in the roles of these two military leaders, director Haydon can examine this traditionally male-dominated environment through a new lens. 

Influenced by our own perceptions of gender and associated stereotypes, one imagines the obstacles both Macbeth and Duncan have overcome to achieve and cement their positions, which ultimately makes Macbeth’s betrayal all the more shocking and tragic.  

Ellinson is a striking presence and gives a committed and physical performance as the Thane, consumed by an ambition that soon leads to a bloody and tyrannical rule. As Lady Macbeth, Ony Uhiara spurs on her wife to ‘be the man’ with a calculated ruthlessness that sends them both descending rapidly into a guilt-ridden paranoia.  Casting this as a same-sex relationship does perhaps lend greater significance to Macbeth’s particular fears over her succession and the prophecy that Banquo will father a line of Kings. However, although both give strong individual performances, it feels like there is little emotional connection or chemistry between Ellinson and Uhiara. Despite the deeds they carry out for one another, the depth of their love never comes across. 

The production looks fantastic, with Oli Townsend’s design centring on the sharp, pointed pattern in the floor that gives the appearance of a broken crown. With characters in modern dress and military uniforms, there is a welcome explosion of colour in a nightmarish banquet to close Act One, interspersing the macabre events with a party atmosphere of balloons, confetti and even a game of musical chairs. 

The three Witches work best in this scene, as they mingle with guests as eerily ever-present onlookers. It is the only time they emanate a sense of foreboding or unease; throughout the rest of the play they are used too often as comic relief, reverting to manic dancing or childishness which diminishes the impact of any supernatural power they may hold. 

Rachel Denning gives a powerful performance as Lady Macduff in a particularly brutal and hard-hitting scene and there are well-choreographed and action packed fight scenes peppered throughout. 

Despite this, however, the production itself feels uneven, with stand out set pieces that do not necessarily form a cohesive whole. Those with no prior knowledge of the play may well struggle to follow the plot and this is not helped by some apparent sound issues, making it difficult to hear particular actors when they had their backs turned. In a space like the Royal Exchange, with the cast frequently projecting to different areas of the audience, this meant that some significant lines were lost. 

Macbeth is a bold and visually arresting interpretation and with a woman in the title role it allows for a different perspective on the characters that is entirely welcome. Alas, this production does not quite reach its full potential, but nevertheless, it is an interesting and ambitious take on Shakespeare’s classic tragedy. 

Runs until 19th October 2019 | Image: Johan Persson

Review Overview

The Reviews Hub Score

Bold but uneven

The Reviews Hub - North West

The North West team is under the editorship of John Roberts. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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