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Macbeth, Royal Exchange Theatre - Review

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by David Keyworth (subscribe)
Im a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester. My debut poetry pamphlet is available at
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Dressed to kill
There is a pause in the sound and fury of artillery fire and flashing lights. Three soldiers in camouflage gear - one who has descended on a rope - rip of their masks and cackle maniacally. They are, of course, the witches.

This is one of the most highly charged and combative openings I have seen in a production of Macbeth.

Theatre, Manchester, Royal Exchange Theatre, Shakespeare, Christopher Haydon, Macbeth, Lucy Ellinson
Lucy Ellinson (Macbeth). Photo by Johan Persson.

There have been numerous stagings of the Scottish Play in recent years in Greater Manchester. Kenneth Branagh and Alex Kingston took the lead roles in a Manchester International Festival production (2013) in a deconsecrated church.

HOME staged othellomacbeth last year and they also put on the play with Anna Maxwell Martin as Lady Macbeth in 2016.

The National Theatre's UK and Ireland tour of Macbeth starring Kirsty Besterman and Michael Nardone visited the Lowry last year and there have no doubt been many more productions. It was last seen on the Royal Exchange's main stage in 2009.

Theatre, Manchester, Royal Exchange Theatre, Shakespeare, Christopher Haydon, Macbeth, Lucy Ellinson, Ony Uhiara, Theo Ogundipe
Theo Ogundipe (Banquo). Photo by Johan Persson.

What sets this new production apart is that Macbeth is a 'she' and not a 'he'. Lucy Ellinson, in the lead role, paces around with a presence that is imperious but never at ease. This restless spirit serves her well as a warrior but is also turns against her when she starts to disintegrate.

When after killing (Queen) Duncan (Alexandra Mathie) she wails: "Macbeth doth murder sleep," you wonder how often, if ever, she has been blessed by easeful slumber.

The theatre-in-the-round setting gives an extra intensity to her soliloquies - is she confiding in us or are we figments of her fevered imagination.

The Royal Exchange successfully produced Hamlet, in 2014, with Maxine Peake in the lead role.

But I was dubious if they would repeat the triumph with the Scottish tragedy. The dynamic of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth's relationship - and her goading of him - frequently concerns masculinity. (Are you a man? she demands in Banquo's ghost scene.)

Theatre, Manchester, Royal Exchange Theatre, Shakespeare, Christopher Haydon, Macbeth, Lucy Ellinson, Ony Uhiara
L-R Ony Uhiara (Lady Macbeth), Bryony Davies (1stWitch),Nicola May-Taylor (3rdWitch),Charlotte Merriam (2ndWitch). Photo by Johan Persson.

Equally the image of dagger of the mind is a gift to all of us amateur psychologists. That said, Freud himself referred to the murderous couple as "two disunited parts of a single individuality" (Some Character-Types Met with in Psycho-Analytic Work, 1916).

Shakespeare's uses the analogy of clothes throughout the text (" . ..his title hang loose about him, like a giant's robe upon a dwarfish thief.")

Female leaders have often robed themselves in masculine rhetoric. Perhaps most famously Elizabeth I, when she said "I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king."

So this production, directed by Christopher Haydon, invites us to think of manhood as an aspect of personality which is not confined to one gender alone.

Theatre, Manchester, Royal Exchange Theatre, Shakespeare, Christopher Haydon, Macbeth, Lucy Ellinson
Lucy Ellinson (Macbeth). Photo by Johan Persson.

The female-lead casting re energises the text and reminds us of the psychological complexity of Shakespeare's characters.

The scene which is actually least compelling - through no fault of the actors - is the most conventional one - where Malcolm (David Hartley) and Macduff (Paul Hickey) decide on what to do about the fiend north of the border.

Elena Pea's sound design also adds to the production's dynamic quality. It has an echoing and pulsating quality which often sounds like a series of doors slamming, one after another.

Theatre, Manchester, Royal Exchange Theatre, Shakespeare, Christopher Haydon, Macbeth
L-R Adam Karim (Murderer) & Lucy Ellinson (Macbeth). Photo by Johan Persson.

We may not be far off a newly independent Scotland, governed by a female leader - even though Conservative leader Ruth Davidson has quit to spend more time with her female partner and their baby. As ever, Shakespeare continually finds new ways to be topical.

Whether a female Macbeth will become a regular option remains to be seen. But this production refreshes our thinking about an often-staged play. It would be a wonderful legacy if a contemporary playwright took inspiration from it to fashion a new play about a Mrs Macbeth - either a real or imagined one.

Cast. Photo by Johan Persson.
Cast. Photo by Johan Persson.

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Why? Attagirl Macbeth - Combative Production at the Royal Exchange
When: 13 September 19 October 2019
Phone: 0161 833 9833
Where: Royal Exchange Theatre St Anns Square, Manchester, M2 7DH
Cost: Standard Tickets from 19
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