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FringeReview UK 2021

Low Down

Directed by Yaël Farber, Designed by Soutra Gilmour, Costumer Designer Joanna Scotcher, Light Tim Lutkin, Sound Peter Rice, Composition Tom Lane, Movement Director Emily Terndrup, Casting Julia Horan CDG, Children Casting Verity Naughton, Fight Director Kate Waters ‘Kombat Kate’, Costumer Supervisor Sydney Florence, Assistant Director Yasmin Hafesji. Till November 27th.


Whether it’s Tim Lutkin’s yellow-grey lighting so refractive you can cut it, Peter’s Rice’s sound like a voice through its cloud, Tom Lane’s growly cello composition played by Aoife Burke, there’s never any doubt you’re in a Yaël Farber-directed production: always mesmerising, sometimes magnificent. What she brings to the Almeida’s Macbeth turns this briefest of Shakespeare’s tragedies into an epic of violence spanning dynasties.

In a slow tread of horrors lasting two hours fifty, Farber brings to the lean text of Macbeth a fug of war that’s cyclic: war in the form of pairs of boots wheeled on and emptied on stage at its opening and close. It calls to mind Brecht’s horror at artificial limbs wheeled up to the front before the next battle.

Equally opening and closing – with the same lines – there’s three Fates rather than Weird Sisters: cannily listed Wyrd, radically invoking fate. Sibilant, almost luxurious, Diane Fletcher, Maureen Hibbert, Valerie Lilley pronounce: they’re at once witnesses, watching over the slaughter for instance of the Macduff household, and counsellors only permitted to pronounce in riddles, indifferent to their own malignity. They bring an uncanny intimacy particularly in the second encounter, pronouncing soothingly over Macbeth as he tosses about in bed.

The whole’s suffused with military fatigues and machine-guns in Joanna Scotcher’s costumes. Whereas Soutra Gilmour’s set is often swept enough for action though it’s designed for stillness; which is what we often get. Perspex screens come into their own when they reflect for instance a circular brasier of fire over an object that seems drenched in fire symbolism.

A stark white marital bed wheels on and off, and rough table and chairs for two bouts of carousal. A tap for abluting blood and sin is used throughout, gradually flooding the stage to breath-taking effect with prone bodies reflected in the water to Lutkin’s lunar caustic. Uncomfortable for actors (you can’t help hoping backstage has mega-hairdryers) the way levels of action play simultaneously reaffirms this play’s compact nature. And shifts its emphases, so the who and why fall differently.

Farber winds pace so slowly you barely discern it’ll accelerate when it does. William Gaunt’s magisterial Duncan orates from his wheelchair then rises from it after Gareth Kennerley’s bloody man relates his tale, and Adam McNamara (like Kennerley playing his first role) is executed as Cawdor.

James McArdle’s Macbeth begins transcendently honest, and the index of his derangement is measured in how Ross Anderson’s alert Banquo becomes watchful of him in incremental glances. Not that this Banquo’s devoid of ambition either, but his measure is his son Fleance – the winning Jamie-Lee Martin (on this occasion) has a coda too. Anderson’s Banquo suggests he might have become Macduff’s fellow captain had he lived, biding for Fleance whom he lessons in gunmanship.

McArdle’s more barren ambition gleams the more he opens his mouth distracted by the sisters, and suddenly tenses, seethes, ultimately roars. Duncan’s murder leaves him still recognisably the man he was, remorseful. It’s not till he instructs Banquo’s murderers and keeps his wife out of it that psychosis impels blood. It’s from here McArdle becomes a towering force, later stripped to the skin with a gun, only cursorily donning body armour with nothing underneath. No uniform but war.  

Saoirse Ronan’s white-clad Lady Macbeth arrives in one swoop with her monologue cleverly dovetailed. The couple’s physical chemistry is palpable, though Ronan’s youthful evanescence comes more to its own the further from her husband she gets. She delivers her early steely pronouncements with an Irish lilt that marks her as different from all those around her, a fragile isolation checked only by tremulous willpower.

Like the production overall, Ronan’s vocal emphases fall fresh and her trajectory dissolves her character’s classic identity. The only caveat remains in squaring her initial ruthlessness, at the outset almost playful.

Persuasive rather than imperious, for instance in the banqueting scenes, Ronan psychically breaks with her husband after the curtailed banquet, leaving him sleeping to be visited by the sisters. She undertakes one quasi-redemptive action only to prove helpless smeared in blood, lending weight to ‘the Thane of Fife had a wife. Where is she now?’ Her final scenes with Burke – simultaneously Gentlewoman and cellist – and Kennerley’s Doctor – are spectral and move seamlessly into the final tableau of Macbeth’s miniature funeral oration as she lies puddled and reflected.

Outstanding is Akiya Henry’s Lady Macduff as both singer at feasts (the family are brought to Duncan’s abortive stop-over) and as a wife terrified and outraged by her husband’s desertion. It’s also the first we see of Richard Rankin’s anxious but weighty Ross. The scene of Banquo’s murder and Fleance’s circling of the body is painful enough, but Henry’s murder alongside sons Myles Grant and Dereke Oladele (on this occasion) are drawn out and harrowing. Lines are truncated throughout as Farber concentrates sheer physical slaughter, one son dragged from his hiding place after the others are killed.

Michael Abubakar’s Malcolm is both more sinewy of argument and less overtly chilly than some, though in his final retraction to  Emun Elliott’s Macduff he doesn’t add the telling line that ‘I am as yet unknown to woman.’

Elliot’s Macduff is outstanding throughout, from staunch if shadowed friend of Macbeth, you see how visibly early those doubts settle only because he’s initially open-minded. To see him slowly split open to a bereaved howl, spitting back at Malcolm with vengeful transformation, matches the opposing derangement McArdle brings, rendering them strangely kin, finding their opposite poles in rage (Kate Waters‘ fight direction forces a terrible intimacy almost like Coriolanus and Aufidius). The conflagration of these two is overwhelming. Elliot’s terrific Macduff unleashes the final cubits in McArdle’s self-overwhelming.

The cast owns no weak links. Reuben Joseph’s reflective statesmanlike Angus,  Kennerley in other murderous roles than those cited;  McNamara too also as shaven-headed killer, and sick-hearted Seaton.

There’s losses in keeping with Farber’s aesthetic. The drunk porter goes, as do precocious ripostes by the Macduff brood on hanging honest men though the question’s asked. Farber in saving Shakespeare from (fatal?) humour renders him more classical – and in the pacing, wound up to a pitch of Greek tragedy. Ben Jonson would applaud. In this instance, with slight reservations not excluding humour, so do I. But it’s not a recipe for every Macbeth.

There’s one more elision, and you don’t feel Malcolm is getting the last word. With the reprise of the Sisters or Fates and those boots we see Jamie-Lee Martin emerge on a platform hideously haloed: having been earlier taught by his father to handle a gun, he now inherits it. It’s Scotland’s – by extension any country’s – ruling classes, so far steeped in blood that to return is as weary as going on. Building out of Macbeth a recurring epic of structural violence not ended with one overthrow, Farber sets the seal on this outstanding production.