“When shall we three meet again?” ask the three witches at the beginning of Macbeth. Probably quite soon is the answer this year, when there are Scottish Plays popping up everywhere you look. The National’s production is out on tour, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s is at the Barbican and the National Youth Theatre’s is in the West End. And now Shakespeare’s Globe’s in the candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.
It’s the first production of Michelle Terry’s first winter season as artistic director, and Terry herself stars as Lady Macbeth, alongside her real-life husband Paul Ready in the lead role. Robert Hastie, artistic director of Sheffield Theatres, directs a show that’s in rep until February.
But does Hastie’s staging suit the softly lit Sam Wanamaker? Do Ready and Terry bring matrimonial mayhem to the Macbeth household? Where do the critics think this production ranks in this season of Scottish plays?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
The National gave us a post-apocalyptic Macbeth. The RSC gave us a production steeped in horror. What does Hastie do with it, and how well do the critics reckon he does it?
Some reviews reckon his is the best of the bunch. It’s “psychologically coherent and deliciously tenebrous production” and the Globe’s “best Shakespeare show in years” according to Claire Allfree (Telegraph, ★★★★★), while for Dominic Maxwell (Times, ★★★★) Hastie’s staging is “startlingly good”. According to Patrick Marmion (Daily Mail, ★★★★★ ), “this is the best pairing of the diabolical duo I’ve ever seen.”
“Quietness and love are the two threads that run through Robert Hastie’s production of this difficult play, easily the best of the three versions of it that I have seen this year, partly because it has a directness and a willingness to trust the text that makes it immediately accessible,” writes Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★).
“Much use is made not just of the gallery above the stage but of all parts of the auditorium and noises off,” says Ian Shuttleworth (Financial Times, ★★★★★). “This is not gimmickry, but conveys a sense of events outside characters’ control, of threatening irruptions or just eeriness.”
John Nathan (Metro, ★★★★★) agrees, opining that the Wanamaker has been “superbly used” by Hastie, and that his production contains “the most potent theatrical moment of the year”.
“See?” says Libby Purves (TheatreCat, ★★★★). “Keep away from bleeding polystyrene heads and gimmicks and the play itself comes back, timeless and terrifying.”
Other reviews, though, are more ambivalent. Alice Saville (TimeOut, ★★★) reckons its “wry, firmly ungory approach” sacrifices the plays “sickly momentum”, but finds it “crystal clear and consistently intriguing” nonetheless.
“The lighting is set at gloomy, with many scenes lit by a single flickering candle,” writes Miriam Gillinson (Guardian, ★★★). “Everything simmers at a low level, occasionally slipping over into subdued.”
And others (okay, fine, only me) find little to love at all. In my review (The Stage, ★★), I said Hastie “plays everything with a resolutely straight bat” and “other than commendably casting MacDuff as a black woman, Anna-Maria Nabirye, it’s difficult to make out any real imaginative leaps he’s made at all”.
The critics are fairly divided over how good Hastie’s softly lit staging, some calling it perfection, others failing to see what the fuss is about. But what about Ready’s central performance as the titular Thane of Glamis. Does he make for a memorable Macbeth?
“Ready, so good in the BBC’s recent Bodyguard as a weaselly government adviser, is not an obvious Macbeth,” says Allfree. “He has the apologetic physique of a vicar rather than a soldier – but he turns this into a strength: his Macbeth is not at all cut out to murder his way to power and is plunged into crisis because of it.”
“Some Macbeths come across as unstable, warrior-kingly sorts right from the start,” chimes Maxwell. “Ready’s Macbeth is a beta-male opportunist palpably out of his depth. And so we feel this nice guy’s descent into nastiness, panic and cynicism as our own.”
“Ready is a rare bird in that he has an actorly way with oratory, but instead of keeping us at a distance from his character, it clarifies nuances and levels and paradoxically allows us in deeper,” adds Shuttleworth.
Plenty of praise for Ready then, but its not all thumbs up. According to Mountford, “Ready speaks the verse beautifully, but doesn’t plumb the necessary depths and extremes of behaviour”, and according to me, he’s “a decent Macbeth, but only decent”.
“He has a quicksilver lightness, and speaks Macbeth’s lines with great clarity, but by the close he seems petulant and tired rather than broken and tragic,” writes Crompton. “He never gives you a reason to care about Macbeth; his fall seems inevitable. You don’t get a sense of a soul in torment.”
Opposite Ready’s Macbeth is a familiar face – his real-life wife and artistic director Michelle Terry. She has already taken on Hamlet during her tenure on the South Bank with mixed results. How does she fare with the murderous Lady M?
There’s more agreement here. Most critics think Terry is terrific – she’s “easily the most vivid performer here”, writes Mountford, while Nathan reckons the role is “hauntingly played.”
“Terry is very, very good indeed as Lady Macbeth, charting her decline from warm, clever woman to a broken wreck with forensic detail and deep emotion,” writes Crompton. “The moment when she looks aghast at Macbeth in the banqueting scene, as if learning new things about who he is, feels like a revelation; her scream of torment at the close of the sleepwalking scene, cuts to the quick.”
“Ambitious and ruthless, but no monster, her Lady Macbeth is a real woman tangibly looking for a purpose after the death of her child,” chimes Maxwell. “What is life for now if not for seizing a chance such as this, she seems to suggest, propping up her sensitive husband.”
“We can identify every significant moment in Lady Macbeth’s journey,” echoes Shuttleworth. “The hesitation in reading out his letter when she realises that power is within their grasp, the singsong tone she adopts tactically to chivvy him along in their wickedness, the moment when she first realises he has overtaken her in the ranks of Hell and even, possibly, waking from her somnambulism to realise what she has allowed others to hear and retiring to kill herself in remorse and shame.”
But it’s not a complete chorus of approval. “Terry is not a great Lady Macbeth,” I wrote. “She is simply miscast: too likeable, too cheery, too cherubic and too impish an actor to invest the part with any meaningful menace, any believable bloodlust.”
There are four five-star reviews from the Telegraph, Daily Mail, the Financial Times and Metro. Allfree, Marmion, Shuttleworth and Nathan cheer Hastie’s soft, eerie staging, Ready’s unexpectedly erudite Macbeth and Terry’s sensitive performance as his wife.
But there’s a clutter of three-star ratings, too, plus one two-star outlier (ahem). For some there’s just not enough blood in this bloody tale, for others it’s certainly the best Macbeth this year – and the finest show at the Globe for some time.