Defining the nature of Macbeth’s motivation is surely the starting point for any director seeking to give shape to Shakespeare’s words. Christopher Haydon’s production for the Royal Exchange can’t quite decide who or what is driving events.

It’s not that thought hasn’t gone into it – there are too many clever details for that – but so much is going on that the central narrative arc is obscured.

Lucy Ellinson’s gender-flipped Macbeth seems half-crazed from the start, with her restless stance and eyes on stalks expression. Ellinson is engaging and eminently watchable but her role in the tragedy, and relationships with those around her, don’t quite ring true.

Lady Macbeth (Ony Uniara) is full of youthful ambition, her lines delivered with a sense of urgency and exuberance. Designer Oli Townsend highlights the couple’s descent through a symbolism-heavy wardrobe of dangerous red, royal purple and ironically innocent white. It is hard to believe, though, that Ellinson’s Macbeth is so easily led by her spouse into committing the atrocities.

The portrayal of violence is intense, with atmospheric attacks from uniformed snipers and realistic blood and gore. The presence of the witches is also unsettling; Bryony Davies in particular excels in conveying sultry malevolence.

It’s great how the supporting performances add interest to sometimes overlooked characters and scenes. The killing of Macduff’s children is skilfully handled: Rachel Denning displays a welcome maternal softness as Lady MacDuff and Paul Hickey’s performance as a grief-stricken Macduff has quiet power. Theo Ogundipe also impresses as the strong and honourable Banquo.

Yet, amazing as individual scenes are, the lack of narrative propulsion comes back to haunt the production. Like Banquo’s ghost, the issue pops up unexpectedly amidst the high intensity performances and balloons and glitter. It’s hard for tension and anticipation to build without being sure of what’s spurring Macbeth on. At times the play drags.

Shakespeare’s plays should be tweaked, reimagined and played around with in order to stay relevant. But too often theatre makers mistake the universality of Shakespeare’s themes to mean that the play can simply be shoved into a new context and make sense. Let’s not lose the plot.

Macbeth is running at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester until Saturday 19 October 2019. For more information and to book tickets, click HERE

Photo credit: Johan Persson

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