The Tragedy of Macbeth: Saoirse Ronan’s ‘spellbinding’ British stage debut

‘Psychological terror’ too slow to materialise, though when it does arrive it is ‘brute, unrestrained and blood-curdling’

Saoirse Ronan in Macbeth
Saoirse Ronan stars in this bold, brutal production
(Image credit: Marc Brenner )

South African director Yaël Farber has won global acclaim for her dark and “sensuously atmospheric” stagings of works by the likes of Strindberg and Miller, said Dominic Cavendish in The Daily Telegraph.

This eagerly anticipated new Macbeth bears many of her hallmarks: beautiful lighting, an unnerving soundscape, and luxuriously unhurried performances from its stars James McArdle and Saoirse Ronan – the latter making her “spellbinding” British stage debut.

Yet overall, it is only a “qualified triumph”. The action feels swamped by the director’s painstaking approach. It’s as if the lighting, sound and music are being used to “conjure the play’s febrile momentum in lieu of the human drama”, said Arifa Akbar in The Guardian. The play’s “psychological terror” is too slow to materialise – though when it does arrive it is “brute, unrestrained and blood-curdling”.

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A lack of pace is the key problem, said David Benedict in Variety. Macbeth’s own calculation about the murder of Duncan is often taken as a useful guide to staging Macbeth: “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly.” Farber “begs to differ”. Macbeth generally clocks in around two hours. This production lasts more than three, owing to an onstage cellist lamenting throughout, a flood – and a “great deal of pausing”. There are “undeniably electrifying” moments, but it all needs to be faster.

Still, the acting is sensational, said Alexandra Pollard in The Independent. These Macbeths are strikingly young – the actors are 32 and 27 – and loving. They kiss, caress, embrace – “turned on by power and each other”. This makes it all the more devastating when Macbeth “turns towards violence”. Ronan mesmerises, and makes Shakespeare’s “beautiful but weighty words easy to understand”.

McArdle is brilliant too – “pathetic and desperate, meek and callous, genu- inely horrified by what he is doing even as he continues to do it”. They are terrific performances – in a bold, brutal, production.

Almeida Theatre, London N1. Until 27 November

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