Review: Macbeth (Leeds Playhouse)

Friday 4th March, 2022, at Leeds Playhouse.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

In Shakespeare’s epic tragedy, ambition provides the ultimate downfall for its eponymous tragic hero. In this production though, ambition finds rich rewards, and as with her 2019 Hamlet, this take on Macbeth provides a great example of Director Amy Leach’s impressive talent for staging Shakespeare’s work for contemporary audiences.

Macbeth sees its titular character bewitched by witchcraft, love and ambition alike. Good qualities fall away as he plots against his king (a suitably authoritative-jovial Kammy Darweish), betrays all who love him and ultimately faces the consequences of his actions at the hands of the brave Macduff (a passionate Adam Bassett). It’s a hefty, gripping story full of angst and bloodshed, and Leach’s production basks in the drama of it all while exploring some interesting interpretations along the way.

Tachia Newall is an excellent Macbeth. He brings full force to both the brutality and the conflicting emotions of the character, and he’s perfectly partnered with Jessica Baglow, whose Lady Macbeth is affectionate and human with sharp flashes of manipulative venom. The pair capture the destructive, calculating nature of the troubled couple with great chemistry in a shifting dynamic both tactile and detached.

A defining feature here is that Lady Macbeth’s implied maternal experience becomes a concrete element of her story, and by opting to run with the idea of her as a mother, there’s greater depth to the character; despite her ruthless ambition, her heart’s desire was a child before it was power. And yet even here there’s pleasing complexity in this production; it’s fascinating that the “unsex me here/ take my milk for gall” speech lands so much more shockingly when the speaker is visibly pregnant. And the pregnancy element proves productive for Macbeth, too – discussion of Lady M as an unnatural woman and mother is common, but the impact of child loss on Macbeth feels like an intriguing angle, even if it is brief in his arc.

Leach’s take also opts to amalgamate roles – the gist of lines are commandeered by alternative characters to erase minor roles (Donalbain, Hecate who…?) and for the most part, this trimming down works well. And in being unafraid to pursue roads less travelled, Leach also bravely inserts generally effective new dialogue which functions to provide greater clarity to key transitions within the plot. Be not “afeard” if you’re a purist though, because the text remains commendably intact.

This is a visually rich production which offers a bold and versatile backdrop for the action. Lighting design from Chris Davey heightens theatricality by offering some impactful visuals of sweeping searchlights and subtle spotlights to indicate or highlight internal and external spaces. Movement director Georgina Lamb breathes life into otherwise unnoticed background action, and Nicola T Chang’s sound design is particularly notable in the opening moments, underscoring a war zone with a blend of pounding contemporary and Elizabethan music.

But even with all of those impressive features in play, perhaps the biggest “all hail” belongs to Hayley Grindle’s set, which is as visually effective and arresting as it is pivotal to keeping the production active and energised. Leach’s direction puts this set to excellent use – from embracing the multifunctional power of the drawbridge-type set piece which dominates the space to the surprisingly diverse possibilities of a well-placed puddle… With set and lighting complimenting each other so well here, this is the kind of striking stage design which defines a production – we’ll be referencing this Macbeth by the visuals it leaves us with as much as the central performances.

Also setting this Macbeth apart is a commitment to inclusive casting and staging, with Leeds Playhouse again presenting the argument for greater integration of accessibility. Integrated BSL (Consultants: Adam Bassett and Charlotte Arrowsmith) lies centrally in the production, co-existing with the usual sights and sounds of live performance, and it’s great to see how effective such integration becomes when given the spotlight – in this case when it is used to evoke the gory reality of the charms “wound up” by the witches (the suitably unnerving Charlotte Arrowsmith, Karina Jones, Ashleigh Wilder). There’s also integrated audio description, meaning that in distinct contrast to the plot, no-one is left behind by this engaging production.

Leeds Playhouse’s Macbeth plays until March 19th 2022 and you can find your tickets here.

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