Macbeth, presented by the Royal Exchange Theatre Company at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, 6 March 2009.


Kevin De Ornellas
University of Ulster, Coleraine

Kevin De Ornellas. "Review of Macbeth, presented by the Royal Exchange Theatre Company at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, 6 March 2009." Early Modern Literary Studies 15.1 (2009-10) <URL:>. 


Directed by Matthew Dunster. Designed by Paul Wills. Lighting by Philip Gladwell. Sound by Ian Dickinson. Choreography by Aline David. Fight direction by Kevin McCurdy. Assistant direction by Ben Fowler. With Nicholas Gleaves (Macbeth), Hilary Maclean (Lady Macbeth), Rebecca Callard (Weird Sister and Lady Macduff), Niamh Quinn (Weird Sister and Nanny), Alexandra Kenyon (Weird Sister), Robert Gwilym (Duncan and Old Seyward), John MacMillan (Malcolm and Murderer), Matthew Randell (Donalbain, Young Seyward and Murderer), Jason Done (Macduff), Chinna Wodu (Angus), Heather Peace (Lennox), John Stahl (Ross), Christopher Colquhoun (Banquo and Scottish Doctor), Vincent Bernard (Fleance and Nurse), Leigh Symonds (Bloody Captain and Seyton) and Tom Glynn-Whitehead (Son of Macduff). Other parts were played by the Company.

  1. This outstanding modern-dress Macbeth, performed to a rapt audience in Manchester’s superb in-the-round Royal Exchange Theatre, did everything that can be hoped for in a staging of Shakespeare’s tragedy. There was a fast pace throughout; technology was used to illustrate the distance of politicians from their wars; the actors were verbally clear and physically committed; the inevitable doubling was done discreetly and unobtrusively; props were used to chillingly murderous effect; lighting (or lack of lighting) conveyed vividly, when appropriate, a sense of interior opulence or night’s blackness; and the text was amended only when necessary to progress smoothly the director’s vision of a bleak world where many suffer because of the rabid ambitions of a few. The intellectual direction of the production was admirably clear and straightforward, making this an excitingly visceral Macbeth rather than a complex one. The director’s vision was of a Scotland that suffered ferociously because of the vacuous arrogance of a usurping tyrant who did not even attempt to display a veneer of charisma. In this production, Macbeth was an uncared-for autocrat, a thug bereft of charm. The tragedy was not that of a misguided protagonist – the audience could not care for such an empty-headed opportunist – but a tragedy of realisation. That realisation emerged from an extraordinarily bold ending to the production, one that suggested, depressingly, that even superficially attractive politicians retain an ambitious egotism that Macbeth brings to an extreme but logical conclusion. 

  2. The audience felt unsettled even before entering the auditorium. From somewhere offstage, somewhere that projected noise and light inside and outside the auditorium, we could hear the muffled sound of distant explosions and the odd stroboscopic flash that suggested distant shelling. Those who knew the play would assume these bombardments to be desperate, indiscriminate attacks by either Scottish or Norwegian forces; those new to Shakespeare would have felt a general sense of confusion and unease as they wondered about the origins of these weapons of mass force. It was typical of this production that both Shakespearean experts and novices were stimulated in different ways. As one entered the auditorium itself, long before the play’s dialogue started, we saw three young, apparently pre-pubescent girls sitting on the bottom of a bunk-bed in a room, playing with each other’s hair and idly watching some innocuous light entertainment on one of the eight large digital televisions that were placed around the stage. So, the audience was privy to a most innocent scene, an innocent scene that contrasted vividly with the anonymous menace of the merciless shelling in the distance. To explain the theatrical and ethical practicalities of the shock that soon followed, it is vital to stress that one of the young girls was played by a (very young-looking) adult actress, the outstanding Rebecca Callard. From out of nowhere, two ferocious groups of faceless, all-black wearing soldiers stormed in; it was impossible to know who or what any soldier was fighting for – they were supposed to have no recognisable identities. One set of men threw down the bunk-bed, using it as a makeshift barricade against their enemies. This set of men managed to kill the other set with automatic rifle fire. When they had finished shooting their enemies, the men ran off with two of the young girls. Then, shockingly, with Callard wrapped up inside a carpet, her character was viciously raped in front of an appalled audience, then dragged out off stage for yet more humiliation and pain. When the three girls returned, they were dirty, speaking in venomous riddles, visually and psychologically scarred and, in the case of Callard’s character, wearing tights that had been crudely ripped aside. In other words, the three innocent, young, pre-pubescent girls had, through random violence, transmogrified into the Weird Sisters. Foul was fair and fair was foul because any logic in their moral world had been rendered meaningless by a victimhood that they couldn’t possibly understand. Their new malevolence, a malevolence born out of passive suffering, would animate the play – or at least animate the opportunistic malice of Macbeth. The simple moral point, delivered through a breathtaking and galling theatrical outrage, was that initially blameless victims of political violence can become cheerleaders for active perpetrators of subsequent political violence.

  3. In Act One, Duncan and Macbeth appeared to be moral equals. Equals, that is, in that neither offered any sort of humanity or particular generosity. When Robert Gwilym’s harsh-toned Duncan ordered surgery for the blood-covered Captain who spoke of Macbeth’s supposed heroics, he did so with a certain sense of begrudgery – he helped out this wounded warrior because he had to be seen to care about the welfare of a committed follower. The implication was that only very brilliant and very lucky servants of this state would receive help from their ungenerous King. The audience was almost audible in its disdain when Duncan suggested that he had learnt a lesson from the treachery of the former Thane of Cawdor: Shakespearean audiences often wish to shout at a gullible, trusting character (Othello is the most obvious fool of this type). Macbeth, played with relentless, selfish coldness by Nicholas Gleaves had a lack of charisma that was exposed as soon as we saw him first, when he and Banquo came across the Witches or Weird Sisters: faced with the extraordinary sight of three child-witches, he could say nothing witty nor profound: he even lacked the imagination to express much interest in the odd sight. His disposition was supercilious and disinterested, even when the Weird Sisters spoke with such immense ambiguity and such striking rhythmic incantation. He only seemed to realise that the sight was extraordinary when he grasped that there was indeed a possibility that “chance will have me king” (I.iii.144). Lady Macbeth, played as a haughty but bored, short-dressed housewife by Hilary Maclean, grasped more immediately at a chance of advancement. She read her husband’s report about the prophecies of the Weird Sisters on her computer, becoming almost erotically aroused as she imagined a life married to a man “crowned withal” (I.v.29). She physically leapt on her husband when he arrived. Brazen and confident, Lady Macbeth mocked his lack of drive and determination, but, using a mixture of aggressive sexuality and coquettish cajolement, she convinced Macbeth that murdering King Duncan was a good idea. When assuring Macbeth that his part in the assassination plot is simple, Lady Macbeth tells him that he should “Leave all the rest to me” (I.v.72). Because Macbeth was at this point being led off the stage by his determined wife, it seemed that she was alluding to sexual domination as much as to the practicalities of treacherous murder: this Macbeth was dominated by Lady Macbeth in sex well as in political ambition.  

  4. Macbeth’s fatalistic drive is cemented by the time of his reappearance in Act Two. His arrogance was conveyed vividly as Gleaves stressed the rhyme of “knell” and “Hell” and the simple iambics of his verse as he asserted that he would send Duncan “to Heaven or to Hell ”(II.i.63-4). This simplistic arrogance was undermined by his visual immersion in panic after the murder of Duncan and his guards. Macbeth became visually less manly after the killings, not more manly. Gleaves’ body language became jerky and inchoate. He needed to be calmed down by his wife, who failed to convince him that “A little water clears us of this deed” (II.ii.70). Stripped naked in front of the surrounding audience, Macbeth frenetically showered – having been ordered to “get some water” (II.ii.49) by his wife - to remove the blood from his hands and body. Rendered baby-like by his panic, he whimpered as the unimpressed Lady Macbeth had to tell him to dress: “Get on your nightgown” (II.ii.73), she ordered sharply. The Weird Sisters returned to clean up the blood and excess water – they clearly enjoyed getting their hands dirty with the blood and sweat of the murderer who was crass enough to listen to them.

  5. The inebriated Porter was dropped from this production. This was a disadvantage because a skilled clown could have engaged the in-the-round audience directly, but his exclusion was advantageous in that the pace of the action and the clarity of the narrative was retained as we were plunged immediately into a general sense of alarm as senior followers and relations of Duncan realised quickly that he had been the victim of crude regicide. Lennox, unusually, was played by a female, Heather Peace. Consistent throughout, Peace played Lennox as a no-nonsense practical woman, one who had immediate suspicion about the ascent of the Macbeths. She was visibly contemptuous of Macbeth when he limply responded to the sense of dread by mumbling that it “’Twas a rough night” (II.iii.59). Malcolm and Donalbain responded to the crisis with a proportionate sense of outrage and calmness. The characters have the presence of mind to split to England and Ireland: the actors did well to dramatise their matter-of-fact, pragmatic response to their father’s murder. Donalbain was played by the white actor Matthew Randell; Malcolm was played by the black actor, John MacMillan. Macmillan’s physical, African-American-looking appearance facilitated the sensational ending to the play some time later. These multi-racial brothers were impressive in their united determination to avenge their father’s death. At this point in the play, the audience was avowedly on their side as they sought sanctuary from and revenge over the hypocritical, whimpering Macbeth. By the end of Act Two, it was made apparent that Macbeth had, in a stroke, alienated many would-be allies. Macduff spat out with sibilant contempt the news that Macbeth had so quickly “gone to Scone / To be invested” (II.iv.31-2). From this point, it was clear that there would be a major patriotic drive to rid Scotland of the instantly despised new ruler, King Macbeth.

  6. Macbeth seemed to regain a measure of control in the earlier stages of Act Three. His major aim in the Act’s early scenes is the elimination of Banquo and his son, Fleance. Using journeymen in murder like a typical Jacobean dramatic villain, he ordered his one-time ally’s slaying. The murderers were anonymous Eastern Europeans, economic opportunists whose venal malice reflected pointedly the opportunistic malice of Macbeth himself. Smug in a brutal henchmen-like way, they dealt efficiently with the struggles of Banquo, but their complacency was shattered when Fleance escaped. Macbeth’s own complacency is shattered at this point, as the banquet scene follows quickly. During this banquet, Macbeth completely lost self-control, roaring emotively at a Banquo that only he and the audience could see. The other characters could not see the grim, grey and red corpse of Banquo: Lady Macbeth was an embarrassed hostess, apologising unconvincingly for the “unmanned” husband who had let her down publicly. Lennox, as no-nonsense as ever, seemed to imply that Macbeth was drunk rather than “not well” (III.iv.73; 52). Using technology superbly, the production presented the audience with two subjective views of this chaotic scene. On stage, we could see what Macbeth saw: the Ghost of Banquo that was unseen by the other characters. But on the television monitors we saw (obviously pre-recorded) CCTV images of the events. The screens showed the banquet, supposedly in real-time – but without the Ghost, so we could access both the hideous vision seen by Macbeth and, on the television screens, the apparent delusional folly that the other characters saw. But there was no sustained sense that we could sympathise with Macbeth because we can access the spirits that plague only him. The Weird Sisters then came into the now-deserted banqueting hall. Like greedy Dickensian oiks, they voraciously gulped at the Macbeths’ wine and stuffed their faces with the lavish food: as mischievous as ever, the Sisters were the only beneficiaries of the largesse of Macbeth’s decadent, but prematurely ended dinner party. We were relieved soon afterwards when Lennox and Ross stopped speaking allusively and determined firmly to work for a future without Macbeth, to a future Scotland where law-abiding citizens could “sleep to our nights” (  

  7. After an interval which allowed the audience to get a welcome break from the urgent campaign to oust Macbeth, the three Weird Sisters returned. This time, they used an extremely loud ghetto blaster to blare out the Pink song, “So What”, which they danced to precociously with uncompromising agility and commitment. The song lyrics deal with a rebellious girl’s desire to cause trouble, to get drunk, to start a fight. These Weird girls were certainly enjoying the trouble that they had caused for Scotland. Watching children gyrate rebelliously to such supposedly subversive music may have made the audience uncomfortable – what certainly made the audience uncomfortable was the smallest Weird Sister running around the audience with a soldier’s upturned helmet, demanding money from the appalled, unwilling spectators of this crass burlesque busking display. Macbeth then came on stage to hear the predictions of the various Apparitions controlled by Hecate and the Weird Sisters. During this scene, which was soundtracked by a disco hit by Girls Aloud, Rebecca Callard’s Weird Sister performed an extremely suggestive lap dance for Macbeth. By the end of the scene he was exhausted with the erotic stimulation that this Sister had given him as well as the mental confusion that the Apparitions cause through their enigmatic prophecies. The scene also afforded Heather Peace’s Lennox another opportunity to express impatience with Macbeth’s apparent delusions. Twice, she spat out ‘No’ in response to Macbeth’s query about whether or not she saw the Weird Sisters.

  8. Callard doubled up as Lady Macduff – a woman, like Lennox, who projected impatience with a man through hassled, frustrated body language. Lady Macduff, of course, is outraged at her husband’s disappearance. Callard played her as a frustrated young mother. The company added an extra child to the scene: so, as well as the Son of Macduff we got a Daughter of Macduff too. The Daughter played at her computer game while Lady Macduff put away her shopping as she bantered unenthusiastically with her boring Son. The banality of this seemingly loveless domestic situation made the family’s murder seem all the more excessive and shocking. There was an almost baroque air of ritual as one of the killers casually drank Lady Macduff’s bottled water to relax after the physical effort of murdering three albeit weak persons. He relaxed further as he settled down to listen to a jaunty song by the Ting Tings: again, the frivolity of the music created an unempathetic backdrop to grim, disturbing action on stage. Act Four, scene three is one of the wordier scenes in Shakespeare’s shortest play. This scene worked as something of a comforting breather, as Malcolm’s stature rose almost visually as he delivered assurance to his followers, Macduff and Ross, that “Gracious England” (IV.iii.43) would help him in his campaign to extricate the despised Macbeth from the Scottish throne. John MacMillan’s Malcolm, who was fast becoming a master of inspirational rhetoric, convinced all who listened that “Macbeth / Is ripe for shaking” (IV.iii.239).

  9. Act Five began with an intriguing vignette that gave a little bit of surprising character to Shakespeare’s Nurse (or Gentlewoman). Vincent Bernard played the character as a male Nurse in a private hospital. He was, clearly, an immigrant doing the unloved graveyard shift. But seeing Lady Macbeth’s odd behaviour had given him an unexpected interest in his work. No mere functionary any longer, he was enthusiastic and caring as he told his senior colleague, the Doctor, all about his patient’s nocturnal wanderings. The Doctor was as impressed by the quality of information delivered to him by the Nurse as he was flabbergasted by Lady Macbeth’s bizarre conduct. This fleshing out, this conveyance of a suggested interiority for a minor character, was one of many small touches that coloured this generally exciting and involving Macbeth.

  10. The pace stepped up to its most frenetic soon after the hospital scene. Lennox’s role became ever more crucial as she ordered about other followers of Malcolm. The army used high-tech tracking equipment to locate the rumps of Macbeth’s followers: the actors were utterly convincing as soldiers who were defined by motivated, disciplined, swift but conscientious professionalism. Gleaves’ Macbeth bitched with feckless alliteration about the “English epicures” (V.iii.8) who plotted against him, but it was clear that there was now a virtual union of English and Scottish forces moving unstoppably against him. The television screens were employed to great effect again: during a brief respite from the movement on stage, the screens showed outdoor location footage of soldiers moving through a wooded area: as well camouflaged as they were well armed, it was clear that Birnam Wood really was coming to Dunsinane. Nobody was going to miss the faltering Macbeth. His nadir came during his extremely impersonal epitaph for his dead wife. It was obvious that Macbeth himself could not fight off the sense that he himself was a particularly “poor player” and a “walking shadow” who would soon be extinguished by Malcolm’s momentum (V.v.23). His end came in a fittingly spectacular and violent fashion: I don’t think that I have ever seen a so-called tragic protagonist die with so little regret from audience or company. This Macbeth was not mourned at all.

  11. Concluding the action, Malcolm thanked his supporters, and then produced the evening’s greatest and most thought-provoking surprise. Malcolm’s closing speech was delivered in a soliloquy – which, of course, it is not in the text because it is delivered to his victorious Thanes (now Earls). Here, John MacMillan spoke the lines diffidently, in an exploratory fashion, because he was composing and rehearsing the lines prior to their public utterance. He was particularly pleased with himself as he eventually found the perfect adjective for Lady Macbeth: “fiendlike” (V.viii.69). He exercised this informal rehearsal as he got dressed. Handsome, tall, thin and black, MacMillan dressed smartly in dress trousers, a white shirt and a red tie, like a spitting image of that other careful orator, Barack Obama. The audience liked this Malcolm: everyone appreciated his coolness, his articulate persuasiveness and the sheer feelgood factor that he inspired. Malcolm, in short, was an Obama-like political performer. Initially carried away by the apparent justness of Malcolm’s cause, the audience latched onto him. But we became struck by a sense of a tragedy of realisation about the contrived front displayed by all self-serving leaders: even superficially compelling politicians are ultimately conniving and selfish. At the end of the play, as we applauded every actor’s superb performance, we were, though , asking ourselves a difficult question: as with Obama, do we like Malcolm simply because he is less obviously egregious than the illegitimate, intellectually challenged fool that he replaced?

  12. Overall, this was a fantastic, visually rich, viscerally vital and deceptively thought-provoking Macbeth: I consider myself very lucky to have seen it. Contemporary English Shakespeare performance is largely dominated by the heritage dross that the RSC delivers year-after-year in Stratford and by celebrity-driven West End shows in London. Great Shakespeare productions still thrive in England – simply, one has to travel away from London and Stratford to find them.

Works cited


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