Macbeth: Ralph Fiennes is pure poetry in this trad rather than rad staging


This touring production radiates old-school classiness, with Fiennes powerfully leading from the front

Fiennes plays the titular hero in Macbeth, with Indira Varma as his wife
Ralph Fiennes plays the titular hero in Macbeth, with Indira Varma as his wife Credit: Matt Humphrey

Simon Godwin didn’t get the gig running the RSC, but this estimable director hasn’t let that clip the wings of his ambition. He has joined forces anew with Ralph Fiennes, with whom he worked at the National in 2018 on an opulent and acclaimed Antony and Cleopatra, to forge a dynamic piece of “event theatre” of the sort that the RSC should itself do.

Harking back to Fiennes’s noble flirtation with site-specific Shakespeare in the early 2000s, when he gave us Coriolanus and Richard II at the old Gainsborough Studios, in North London, this Macbeth is designed for viewing in existing warehouses, starting on the outskirts of Liverpool, and heading early next year for London’s docklands, south of the river.

There’s a school of thought that Macbeth works best in confinement. All the same, an aura of containment is obtainable even in a venue as vast as “the Depot”, which houses a three-sided auditorium of some 900 seats in a hangar-like environment, the letter M enticingly projected on the outside like the Batman insignia.

There’s something soulless and sinister about suburban retail areas – a sense of impermanence, too, of civilisation barely holding. Designer Frankie Bradshaw mentally prepares the audience via a quasi-buffer zone strewn with blasted detritus, a car on fire a sight to behold, our nerves jangled by the screeching roars of fighter-jets.

At the start, the three witches crawl on all fours towards the raised stage area – an austere compound formed of steps, balconies and glass panels. They embody ragged survivors seeking refuge, their moans combining to form a wail of agony sustained into something weirdly ominous. Their female presence contrasts with the battle-hardened bearing of Fiennes’s military-garbed Macbeth, who emerges to sit and sip at a water-bottle.

Macbeth starring Ralph Fiennes Credit: Matt Humphrey

At 60, Fiennes’s customary controlled stillness, even stiffness, suits well enough a care-worn, long-serving soldier suddenly tantalised with the prospect of power. Fiennes supplies physical restraint and deliberative, cerebral energy. Godwin understands how much the play’s malignancy is hatched by the airy suggestion of words, and the evening, so serious-minded it dispenses with the comic “Porter scene”, is marked by a scintillating attention to the verse that clearly sounds its dark riches.

It’s Fiennes’s night. He’s perturbed and furrowed, decisive then vacillating, kneeling by Indira Varma’s poised, cool, goading Lady M, creepily to caress her belly on the line “bring forth men-children only”. He’s agitated after Duncan’s murder, and something truly horrid gleams in his gaze (fit to rival old Voldemort himself) as he plots Banquo’s death: “Come, seeling night,/ Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day.” And he memorably crumples during his lunging showdown with Ben Turner’s Macduff, as if some invisible power-cord has been cut.

Is it a full-voltage, visceral Macbeth, though, fit to send you reeling home with nightmares? On balance, not really. Overall, it’s more “trad” than “rad” (set-text coach parties will feel catered for), and yet it’s coherent, confident and, yes, old-school classy, which, given the lacklustre nature of too much Shakespeare this Folio quatercentenary year, is no small achievement. All hail!

In Liverpool until Dec 20, then touring until March;