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Review of Tennant as Macbeth: An Auditory Experience

Last week I took a trip to London to see the new production of Macbeth starring David Tennant at Donmar Warehouse. Macbeth is an age-old Shakesperean classic, one that people often think of first when told to think of a Shakespearean play. Thus, I am always looking (as I do with all Shakespeare productions I see) for something new and exciting, something to make me remember why it is still a play we see performed today, centuries later. Having heard murmurings about this being a very technology based interpretation of the play, I was excited to see what was in store. 

The stage at the Donmar theatre is black box-esque style with a thrust element, with audiences seated on three sides of the action. The stage was a simple white floor with no set or props. On the back wall there was, however, a distinctive feature. It had four large glass panels, like sliding doors that could open and close and that we could just about see through. For most of the play we saw the three piece band sat behind here, and at other moments full scenes played out behind the glass. It made it feel disjointed from the central action on the stage, but this made it more haunting and omnipotent, the sense being that someone was always watching over the main action.  

I initially thus have to commend the people behind the scenes of this production, perhaps more so than the actors themselves. The idea of giving every audience member synced up headphones with binaural sound was innovative and enthralling; I felt central to the action the entire two hour performance. I especially enjoyed that actors, primarily Tennant as Macbeth, could choose to vary volume and come down to even a whisper for certain lines, and we were still able to pick up every word due to the headphones feature. The concept of having the witches as this intangible entity identifiable only by the speech made through the soundscapes was eerie and genius. A prominent feature was birds made to seem as if circling your head at several moments, wings flapping right inside your ears. There was music from the band that funnelled through the headphones, underpinning most of the scenes. 

The ensemble was certainly a strongpoint for this production. On top of the soundscapes, we got a lot of choreographed group work, including lifts and movement sequences that really emphasised the sense of entrapment and pressure that Macbeth was feeling from his peers and himself, internally. We saw them on all fours at the back of the stage, climbing over the sides, slowly advancing on Macbeth placed centre stage, whispering lines all the while. We also saw them utilise the back glass-panelled room by standing in a line banging on the glass wordlessly, representing the inner turmoil Macbeth was facing in the wake of his murderous actions. 

Many of the people there, I would hasten to guess, were there purely for David Tennant. A big name both on screen and theatre; just his name on a production is guaranteed to warrant some allure. And he lived up to expectations: his acting was visceral and haunting. I think this is the first production where I felt some empathy for Macbeth, and really understood the emotional aspect of his mental decline.

The costume was also cleverly thought out, even if seeming minimal upon first glance. All of the characters were dressed in shades of grey and black, all with classical Scottish kilts, a small homage to the Scotland setting in which the play is primarily located. However, Lady Macbeth stands out amongst the rest, dressed head to toe in white. A common colour symbolic of purity, it felt oxymoronic given her murderous intentions and manipulations. Her role as a woman associated with this sort of “cover” of innocence was emphasised by this costume choice. The high neckline of this long, flowing, dress, impacting the stage at every turn, dominating the space whenever she frequented it.  

The serious nature of the performance was also interspersed with moments of comedy primarily through breaking the fourth wall and having audience interaction. It did feel slightly out of touch from the rest of the production, but certainly warranted some shock factor and lightened the mood.

Definitely one to catch if you are lucky enough to get your hands on tickets. It’s an all round experience that entices every one of your senses.

Macbeth is running at the Donmar Theatre from 8 December 2023 – 10 February 2024.

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