Ralph Fiennes as Macbeth – review

Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma offer a glimpse of greatness


Indira Varma holds Ralph Fiennes in a scene from Macbeth touring theatre production February 2024
Ralph Fiennes & Indira Varma in Macbeth. Photo: Marc Brenner

Ralph Fiennes wanted to take this production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth away from the traditional theatrical venues and audiences, so it has popped up in a warehouse-like hall in London’s Docklands. Apart from the possibility of attracting a new audience, there are other advantages to a venue like Dock X.

For a start, Frankie Bradshaw can begin her fabulous set design before you even enter the auditorium, by making the lobby or antechamber an immersive scene that conjures the aftermath of a battle. There’s a burning car, rubble and patrolling soldiers, as you might have seen on news reports from Gaza or Ukraine.
This is important because, although this production by Simon Godwin, constantly reminds you that you are in a war zone, the set itself, once you are inside the auditorium is a plain stage rising via wide stairs to a mezzanine, emphasising the domestic situations in which the play largely takes place, rather than battlefields.
The temporary seating is on three sides which adds an appropriate intimacy. I must say, though, I would rather sit in an actual theatre any day than this shed, into which well over a thousand people were crammed with apparently no consideration given to the torture caused by minuscule legroom and cheap plastic seats.
Anyway, enough of the venue, what about the show? Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, surpassed only, in my opinion, by King Lear. Its supremacy derives from its complexity: the constant psychological battles between good and evil, duty and ambition, fate and free will, truth and lies, and so on. I go to every production hoping it will shed light on the play’s depths, and guide us through the states of mind of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, as they make their bloody decisions.
In this production, we are constantly reminded that we are in a war torn country, and, as the cast are in modern dress, that it could be one of today’s many conflicts. There has been a rebellion and an invasion, and Macbeth has played an important part in the King’s victory over the opposition.
The sound of artillery is frequent and loud. But does that explain the Macbeths’ ambition? I don’t think so. If anything, the reminder of today’s awful fighting is a distraction, because it is unnecessarily upsetting. I saw this show on the day of the 2nd anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Someone who was sitting near me and had experience of that war, didn’t return for the second half, apparently because they found it too traumatic.
The background of conflict seems to me irrelevant to a play primarily about the consequences of overthrowing a legitimate government (even if it’s one with which you disagree) and such themes as whether the end can justify the means, and how one evil act leads to another.
Perhaps this is a good point to run over the plot, if you’re unfamiliar with Macbeth. The Scottish lord and soldier meets three Weird Sisters, or Witches, who predict that he will become King. He’s quite excited by this prospect but seems prepared to let it happen naturally until his wife persuades him to take the opportunity to kill the monarch while he’s staying with them. The weird women also predict that his friend Banquo’s heirs will become Kings, so he decides to kill Banquo. MacDuff joins the English in opposition to him, so he puts out a contract on the MacDuff family. All very Putin. In the end, he suffers the consequences of his actions.
Actor Ralph Fiennes stands holding a knife in a scene from Macbeth touring production February 2024
Ralph Fiennes in Macbeth. Photo: Matt Humphrey

So, what do Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma as the murderous couple tell us about the ‘why’ of all this? Both actors bring out the richness of their roles. We first meet Mr Fiennes’ Macbeth as he lumbers onto the stage. He talks like a blunt soldier. He’s slightly stooped, he looks tired, as if he is exhausted rather than exhilarated by his victories. Maybe this explains why he’s not in a hurry to embark on another round of killing and thinks he might leave his succession to the throne to ‘chance’.

His wife on the other hand, bright eyed, articulate, and sophisticated in dress and manner, can’t wait. Ms Varma is clipped and matter-of-fact as she pushes him toward the deed. It’s then we get the first of many speeches in which Shakespeare expresses Macbeth’s internal arguments, sometimes to others, sometimes to himself. At first, his objections seem to be to do with etiquette: he is the King’s subject, obliged to be against assassination; that he is his host, who should be providing protection.
Ralph Fiennes is magnificent at these moments. He rightly acknowledges the speeches for the powerful poetry they are, and almost stepping out of the body of the plain soldier, to address the audience and explain his thinking. He articulates the lines beautifully, yet sounds as if he’s just thought of them, and he conveys their meaning with clarity. It’s an absolute pleasure to hear Shakespeare’s poetry projected to the back of the auditorium without any apparent strain. And I know because I was in the back row.
Indira Varma’ injects a moment of black comedy when Lady Macbeth loudly castigates her shaken husband for bringing the bloody knives out of Duncan’s bed chamber.
There’s a lot in the play about being a ‘man’, not a weak ‘woman’. Having initially seemed emasculated by his wife, Ralph Fiennes’ Macbeth becomes almost giddy following his killing spree, laughing and dancing nervously between appearances of Banquo’s ghost in the middle of a dinner party. It’s a funny moment but Indira Varma’s eyes show Lady Macbeth’s concern that her husband is becoming unhinged and uncoupled from her.
Guilt affects them both in different ways, Lady Macbeth cannot escape the thought of the horror of the crime they have committed and is driven to madness and suicide. The scene in which she tries to wash invisible blood from her hands was chilling. In fact, Indira Varma almost stole the show, except…
Ralph Fiennes as Macbeth, having begun the play hunched and exhausted, becomes more and more frenetically alive, and more reckless, even as he perceives the futility of life: the ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ speech, the last great examination of the consequences of his actions, is spoken to perfection, with the final conclusion that life ‘is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’, hanging in the air like a warning to us all.
The adaptation by Emily Burns makes the play move along at a pace, as it should, although she has excised the drunken Porter scene. I know a lot of people will be pleased to lose what they say is an incongruous piece of bawdy comedy in the midst of the murder of the King, but I think it offers a relief from the tension and a kind of parody of the chief villain’s antithetical way of expressing himself. I know you’ll want an example. So, a typical Macbeth declamation goes: ‘I should against his murderer shut the door, not bear the knife myself.’ The Porter uses the same form to say: ‘Drink provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance.’
I did like the way the Weird Sisters permeated the play. I find the supernatural nature of the Witches a difficult element of Macbeth, even though they are essential to driving the plot but here, in everyday clothes and played by Lucy Mangan, Danielle Fiamanya and Lola Shalam, they come across as ordinary young women, maybe even displaced citizens, whose looks of mischief suggest they are passing on their predictions to expose and undermine those in charge.
I’d also pick out the performances of Steffan Rhodri who gives the loyal Banquo, solidity and a skeptical eye, and Ben Turner as MacDuff whose heartbroken reaction to the murder of his family was palpable.

So, for me, a slightly disappointing production, and a terrible venue, but a glimpse of greatness in the performances of Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma.

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