Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma Anchor a Modern and Industrial Take on Shakespeare’s Macbeth

Under the intelligent direction of Simon Godwin and adaptor Emily Burns, the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s live production of Macbeth springs to life on both the stage and screen. Filmed live at Dock X, a custom-built theatre space in London, this modern rendition of the acclaimed play brings manipulation, betrayal, and murder to the forefront of the present day. While at times challenging, the production – anchored by two seasoned screen veterans, Ralph Fiennes (Macbeth) and Indira Varma (Lady Macbeth), delivers a captivating and fiery portrayal of guilt and tyranny.

Unbeknownst to only those new to the tragedy, Macbeth builds on the foundation of a prophecy. When presciently told he will be king, the fate of the Scottish general is forever changed when he and his driven wife, Lady Macbeth, commit regicide to fulfil an ambition brought on by superstition. A greedy and bloody tale ensues, where free will clashes with fate, fear, and the drive to keep power. Audiences have most likely last visited the story in Joel Coen’s 2021 historical thriller The Tragedy of Macbeth. Gone are castles, crowns, and Denzel Washington – instead, war-ravaged warehouses, barbed wire, and bloodied soldiers take centre stage.

This adaptation of Macbeth boldly introduces several changes to give the play a distinctly modern feel. In a daring move, costume and production designer Frankie Bradshaw replaces the traditional 11th-century Scottish garb with corporate outerwear and uniformed military khaki, embracing a contemporary setting. The three witches, once old crones, are now depicted as working-class youth ravaged by war – covered in dirt and dressed in denim and puffer jackets. This modernisation breathes fresh air into the play, inviting the audience to see a familiar story remixed – even if it sometimes feels like a gimmick.

The set design is characterised by a lack of embellishment or furnishing, with everything made of hard concrete. A staircase remains the most dynamic fixture. Besides the occasional tree that dances across the stage, the hanger-like rooms feel either desolate or empty – utterly devoid of colour. As intended to match the grizzled and war-torn atmosphere of the play, this almost grayscale exhibition adds to the sense of industrial brutality and fruitless pursuit of war. These elements successfully make the viewer feel the play is more ‘of the now’ but sometimes feels too cold or removed.

Ralph Fiennes plays the character with the gravitas one can expect from an actor who starred and directed 2011’s adaptation of Coriolanus. He crosses a pendulum between confident warmonger and guilt-ridden husk, able to project his ambitions in a bellowing voice but also muse with trembling discontent. The impressive lighting and soundscape allow for close-ups of his face that evoke the desperation that seeps in as the story progresses.

While he injects some humour into the solemn proceedings, his attempts at levity often fall flat. Macbeth is about the stone-cold lust for power, the trappings of guilt, and the cascading failings of ambition—playing for laughs doesn’t particularly fit the thematic itinerary. Thankfully, the famous ‘Tomorrow’ soliloquy remains a highlight of the play—Fiennes gives the speech the mourning and dramatic anguish the words deserve.

While Ben Turner turns in a vengeful and measured performance as Macduff, Indira Varma remains the scene-stealer of the entire production, portraying a more ill-fated Lady M. Her versatility and range know no bounds – she inhabits a version of this character in which she has failed to give birth five times. Her physical scope makes iconic moments like the blood on her hands feel as tangible and natural as possible. Like the very ‘damned spot’ that will not come out, Varma’s presence as a Shakespearean performer will leave a bright stain on audiences memory- and not in the pejorative sense.

The Scottish play has been and will be adapted many times. In its attempt to feel more current, the viewer is left to wonder if bringing Macbeth into the 21st century invites a proper thematic evolution. Does it make you think of the current geo-political climate? Or do you remain ‘cabined, cropped and confined’ to what you have seen before? Your mileage may vary.

While this adaptation comes with its fair share of caveats – the fights are violent but often stunted, the humour is questionable, and the production is war-inspired but uninviting, this well-filmed and well-acted live production sits more firmly on the side of admirable adaptations.

Kahn Duncan

Kahn is a passionate Melbourne based film lover who looks to film as a tool for both entertainment, education, but also feeling. Attempts to watch at least one feature film a day, but unfortunately life gets in the way sometimes. Prospective Graduate of Media Communications (Screen Studies) and Business (Marketing) at Monash University.

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