Macbeth, Shakespeare Theatre Company

With his new production of Macbeth and the recent 2024-2025 season announcement for the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Artistic Director Simon Godwin is putting his bets on Names. Macbeth, in a production that originally premiered in the UK, stars Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma as the titular power-hungry couple. Next season, Hugh Bonneville, Matthew Broderick, and Alex Brightman (well-known to musical theatre fans) have featured prominently in announcement and subscription materials. It's not an unusual approach these days, and certainly shares a lot in common with predecessor Michael Kahn's penchant for drawing on his Julliard connections. The hope is that by putting on a combination of familiar actors in plays you know, it's easier to bring people in; the trick, of course, is making them come back, which they'll only do if they feel it's worth their time and money.

Photo of Indira Varma and Ralph Fiennes in Macbeth, by Marc Brenner

Much talk, of course, has centered around the location, both physical and imagined, for the production. The program notes give the inspiration to Fiennes for insisting on non-traditional theatre spaces in each touring location, although the desire for an industrial space doesn't quite match with the former television studios being used by STC, unless you count requiring patrons to use portable toilets (a mystifying choice when the venue itself has toilet facilities).  Audiences enter the theatre space by crossing a room, designed to evoke the blasted ruins of an active war zone, and cleverly designed panels hide and reveal this area throughout the show for good effect, revealing the stark outlines of Frankie Bradshaw's set through Jai Morjaria's lighting. I found it odd, however, that once audiences reach the thrust-configured theatre space, the war-torn world seems to largely disappear as it does for great spans of Shakespeare's text, and as audiences, we are more compelled by the ghosts of Macbeth's own violence than the specter of a war we never see. If the choice of untraditional theatre spaces was to capture some sort of immersive atmosphere for the audience, that doesn't seem to have been achieved beyond what amounts to a glorified lobby display.

Photo of Lola Shalam, Lucy Mangan, and Danielle Fiamanya in Macbeth, by Marc Brenner

Most disappointing were the lead performances of Fiennes and Varma. Fiennes has adopted a habit of hunching in on himself in darker moments of the character, and keeping an often dour expression on his face, and both Fiennes and Varma struggle to stay connected and grounded during soliloquies. Their chemistry and connection with each other works well, and both characters exist better in dialogue than when alone, but it's a shame when some of the best verse in the play pales in comparison to other performances I've seen by actors in this community who lack the international name recognition Godwin seems to prioritize.

The version of the text performed here is an adaption by Emily Burns, which is serviceable but sometimes seems to stumble through uneven cuts when scenes or characters are given short shrift. There are moments that work well and which Godwin directs with a deft touch, most notably surrounding Lady Macbeth's descent into madness, subsequent loss, and flash of reappearance. It's a shame that the production as a whole just doesn't catch the fire that all the hubbub around it promises. It's the less-talked about double-edged sword of pinning your hat on a familiar play and familiar stars: it can get people in the doors, but many of them will watch and compare every moment and every player to a multitude of other productions that they've seen, and you may well fall short. Watch out for too much sound and fury, because it may signify very little in comparison.


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