Three years on from the Donmar’s all-female Shakespeare trilogy and five years after Maxine Peake played Hamlet at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, gender-switched Shakespearean productions don’t seem all that radical.
Until recently, there hadn’t been many female Macbeths. But in 2017, Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre did its own re-imagining with The Macbeths and earlier this year New York company Red Bull did something similar Off-Broadway with Mac Beth.
So having Lucy Ellinson essaying one of Shakespeare’s great anti-heroes in the same venue that Peake gave us her Dane feels like well-trodden ground.
Perhaps sensing this, Christopher Haydon’s visceral production pulls out all the stops to assault the senses, wringing every drop of blood from the Grand Guignol plot of ‘the Scottish play’.
Some of it works well. The banquet scene is effectively remodelled into something between the Mad Hatter’s tea party and a rave, with animal-costumed revellers playing a dangerous game of musical chairs that cleverly emphasises the Macbeths’ newfound status.
While seeing courtiers in modern military fatigues wielding knives and handguns is nothing new, having the execution of Theo Ogundipe’s commanding Banquo take place on a motorway with murderers disguised as high vis-jacketed workmen feels fresh, with Oli Townsend’s staging and Colin Grenfell’s lighting completing the effect.
Having Nima Taleghani’s ultra-contemporary wide boy Lennox flit seamlessly between mateyness and menace in his audience interactions is similarly effective.
But other additions, like Rachel Denning’s chirpy Porter doubling as a stagehand and giving the overly styled witches more of an active role in proceedings, only serve to extend the production’s already overlong running time.
Transforming Macbeth into a woman also adds confusion. The pronouns are switched from ‘he’ to ‘she’, yet when Ony Uhiara’s petulant Lady Macbeth is goading her spouse, she still demands that she “be so much more the man”. Little is made of the fact that this is now a same-sex relationship, making this feel like a grab bag of competing ideas rather than a cohesive whole.
Yet the production’s strongest suit is its Macbeth. What Ellinson lacks in physical presence she makes up for with a skittish energy. With her wiry frame, closely cropped hair and big, baleful eyes, she looks less the fierce warrior and more a junkie hopelessly addicted to power. She also pulls off some spectacular performative gear changes, breathing new life into familiar passages. Her “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”, as Macbeth processes the news of her wife’s death, sounds like the product of a heartbreakingly broken mind.
It is in these quieter moments that the production hits the right emotional notes, with Paul Hickey delivering a similarly restrained performance as Macduff. His discovery of the fate of his young family is more horrifying than any brutal act of violence.