sun 16/06/2024

Macbeth, The Depot, Liverpool review - Ralph Fiennes leads a conventional production in an unconventional space | reviews, news & interviews

Macbeth, The Depot, Liverpool review - Ralph Fiennes leads a conventional production in an unconventional space

Macbeth, The Depot, Liverpool review - Ralph Fiennes leads a conventional production in an unconventional space

Touring show lands first in Liverpool with a terrifying relevance

Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma in Macbeth - not viewing Instagram posts of "What I did on my holidays" Matt Humphries

Next door to the beautiful Art Deco Littlewoods Pools Building, nearly 30 years standing derelict, a set of grey sheds stand, a seat of potential for Liverpool’s nascent film industry. Nearly a century ago, the long, white, towered construction in which the next "Spend! Spend!

Spend!" millionaires were plucked from the old terraces and new housing estates of post-war Britain, spoke to the confidence that still suffused a great city in the 1930s. The drab utility of today's metal monoliths speaks to the accountants and administrators whose funding bids must squeeze every penny out of prospective ROI in order to be approved.  

Inside, things are different, at least for now. The Shakespeare Theatre Company have launched their touring, site-specific Macbeth in your reviewer’s native city, first on a list that also includes Edinburgh, London and Washington DC. Even my taxi driver (good luck with public transport!) evinced a little Scouse pride, needing no directions and disappointed not to have hands on tickets himself, as only the dearest ones were left when he looked. Eurovision and Ralph Fiennes in the same year!

To many queuing up for entry, grateful that the wind was not, for once, biting, the opening tableau of a burnt out car on a bombsite will evoke images from Gaza or Mariupol, but, and this is an advantage of using alternative spaces for theatre, locals might think differently. I thought of the bombsites of the Blitz, still undeveloped 30 years on or of The Albert Dock, now the jewel in the city’s cultural crown, but 40 years ago, a post-industrial wasteland. I threw my mind forward a couple of hours to the end of the play, when a kingdom that had torn itself apart stood in that toughest of places, the start of a new age, and reflected that Liverpool's 2023 iteration had advanced some way beyond that. Like many ex-pats who will return for this showpiece occasion, I inwardly acknowledged that it was no thanks to me. 

That’s a long way to go to extract some specificity (some might say justification, but I won’t) for this production which turns out to be a rather orthodox staging of Shakepeare’s examination of ambition, power and violence mixed with crowd (and monarch) pleasing supernatural interludes. That said, it’s all the better for leaving the innovation to be wrapped around the action that director, Simon Godwin, orchestrates on a thrust stage beautifully lit by Jai Morjaria, whose shadows underpin the narrative perfectly.

Fiennes gives us a world-weary Macbeth, initially amused as much as surprised by the Witches’ prophecies. Dressed in combat fatigues and with fighter aircraft flying overhead, he suggests the here-and-now, but there is no modern military technology on show, not even a mobile phone. An allusion to the fact that the war just concluded, in part due to his heroic leadership, has taken his country back to the Stone Age? Not with jets screaming above.

There’s more jarring with The Weird Sisters’ look. Danielle Fiamanya, Lucy Mangan and Lola Shalam are dressed by Frankie Bradshaw as if they were caught on their way back from Glasto, with no hubble-bubble, just a strange curse of a prediction one might expect had one refused to pick them up when hitch-hiking home. It’s an underwhelming trigger to tip a Thane into madness.

More convincing is Indira Varma’s breezily efficient Lady Macbeth. Silk blouse and trousers, she looks more prepared for a board meeting than the triumphant return of a war-hero husband, but there’s passion and love between the two, and a hint that it is the distaff side of the marriage that really harbours the ambition. 

Both speak their lines beautifully (as does Ben Turner, in a near scene-stealing turn as Macbeth’s nemesis, Macduff). It shouldn’t be a matter for remark, but the verse and concomitant rhythms are so often lost in 21st century productions - it was a delight to relax into the language rather than struggle to keep up, Christopher Shutt's sound design working well in a tricky space.

Verma’s descent into spot-scrubbing psychosis is less demonstrative than is often portrayed, but that absence of showiness pays off with her brutal commitment to her unsexing and ruthless stiffening of her husband’s spine when doubts over the intended regicide creep into his head. I could not help but be reminded of Kate Middleton, whose bonhomie and upper middle class ordinariness occasionally slips to show a steeliness of purpose when decisions must be made. Of course, kings and queens do not go round murdering each other these days - character assassination by press briefing is as literal as it gets.

There’s Banquo’s ghost, gory blood spilt and real sparks from real swords in the climactic fight scene (Kate Waters choreographing the thrills and spills), so the spectacle is delivered if not quite the immersive experience some may have been led to expect. Fiennes will please his fans, and his approach to the line readings should please everyone, but his age, 60 now and, commendably, not hiding it, pulls something away from his character arc. 

Would a man with so much experience of the world have his head turned so easily, be so suddenly seized with the prospect of the Crown, so all-in as to order the murder of Macduff’s "pretty ones"? Then again, one looks around the world at populist politicians of that vintage and older, and one is forced to reflect that Shakespeare’s excavations of human psychology are so penetrative that such trivial observations are merely incidental to the eternal truths he so dazzlingly reveals. 

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