Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre are no strangers in allowing women to play Shakespeare’s most famous characters. In 2014, they received critical acclaim when an androgynous Maxine Peake played Hamlet, although the central character remained male. In the first play of their Autumn/Winter season, the Royal Exchange have fully switched the gender of Macbeth, changing Shakespeare’s text to refer to Macbeth as a woman. This is a daring concept that could wind up being deemed a success or a failure.
I have no issue with gender-blind casting of Shakespeare’s plays. Hope Mill Theatre’s recent all-female production of Hamlet worked brilliantly. The idea of Macbeth being in a lesbian relationship is certainly refreshing, instantly setting it firmly within the 21st Century. However, changing Shakespeare’s text to do so causes several issues. This production retains all dialogue that refers to Macbeth’s manliness, such as when Lady Macbeth manipulates her wife into committing murder, “When you durst do it, then you were a man“. There are numerous occasions like this, where Macbeth’s manhood is mentioned, which make no sense. Worse still, it removes the couple’s motivation for murder.
Lucy Ellinson certainly looks the part of Macbeth, wearing a soldier’s uniform and sporting cropped hair. The problem is that I couldn’t hear the majority of her dialogue, even though I was only sat in the fourth row of the ground level. It is spoken at such a quiet volume, ranging from a guttural whisper to a conversational tone, and whenever Ellinson wasn’t directly facing me, I failed to discern what was being said. As Macbeth is staged in the round, this becomes a real problem after a few minutes. This is exacerbated by the almost frantic pace with which she delivers dialogue. The power of Shakespeare lies in the text, and when you can’t hear what is being said, it is incredibly frustrating.
This frustration is continued as a number of scenes are inappropriately played for laughs. In what is supposed to be a tragedy, this comedy seems out of place, namely in the scenes with the Weird Sisters. Rather than sinister, scheming witches, the trio are young, playful women, who mosh to heavy metal music, flirt with audience members and act like giggling teenagers. Playing their scenes for entertainment means that you start to question why Macbeth would listen to the witches. Why would she take their prophesies seriously, when the weird sisters are so ludicrous?
Ony Uhiara is more promising as Lady Macbeth, sinking into a convincing madness, wide-eyed and distracted during the “Out, Damned spot!” scene. However, there is barely any romantic relationship evident between her and Macbeth. They share little chemistry, and share limited time on stage with each other. This again begs the question about their motives to murder Queen Duncan, and why Macbeth would simply go along with her wife’s plans.
Most irritatingly, when she finds out that Lady Macbeth has killed herself, Ellinson shows little emotional response. Perhaps this is part of her trying to retain her military strength, but it removes all tragedy associated with her wife’s demise. The results is not being able to emotionally connect with Macbeth because she is a character devoid of sympathy or remorse.
Oli Townsend’s contemporary production design works well in some places, with Banquo’s murder taking place at some roadworks, and a bubbling cauldron underneath the stage. The visitation of Banquo’s ghost is elevated into a banquet, complete with donuts, elaborate costumes, a game of musical chairs, and a garland of metallic balloons. The problem is that these balloons are raised into position several scenes earlier, and are clearly visible during Banquo’s murder, spoiling the mood of this scene.
The only things that make Macbeth worth watching are Colin Grenfell’s lighting design and Elena Peña’s disturbing sound compositions. Throughout the play, there is unsettling ambient noise in the background. Whether it is a deep rumbling, a metallic discord, or the more natural sounds of rain, there is never a quiet moment in Macbeth. Although the actors clearly struggled to project over this, it creates an unnerving effect that works well.
Grenfell’s lighting design is the best thing about this production. Harsh and unforgiving white strip lighting wraps around both levels of the gallery. During moments of confusion, they flicker and strobe, causing disorientation. Warmer, circular lamps are used for night scenes, and these gently flicker like gas lamps, before turning blinding white, excellently reflecting the disturbed minds of the play’s protagonist.
Sadly, the excellent technical production design isn’t enough to save Macbeth from disaster. By trying to be innovative and different, it fails to achieve the basics of theatre; ensuring the audience connect with the characters, and can hear what is being said.