William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, directed by Simon Godwin, starring Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, directed by Simon Godwin, starring Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma.

A new production of the Shakespeare play takes lots of risks and has real relevance for audiences today, says Honor Donnelly

Well, I’m not in the best part of Liverpool. It’s what city councils call up-and-coming. Lots of redevelopment and local grants for the arts which is great. It is, however, essentially a retail park and industrial estate. 

The theatre itself has been constructed inside one of two warehouses purpose-built by Liverpool City Council to encourage a fledgling film industry. 

That’s the first plus point for this production and theatre company – they’ve taken a risk, in performing in an area not known for theatre, and like missionaries they’ve gone to a backwater of Liverpool.  

So we’re in a warehouse (no central heating other than the wine you might drink) somewhere between two small rail stations, Wavertree Park and Edge Hill, and just round the corner from the iconic ruins of the old Littlewoods’ buildings. 

Observing the audience, at first sight, I’ve only seen two or three pairs of grubby trainers so far. Even mine are a bit posh (£100 a pair) so I reckon the grubby trainers belong to students possibly of the arts or theatre. Everyone else is sort of as you still expect with a Shakespeare audience, well-shod and well-heeled if you get my drift.

War zone

Attendees enter the auditorium and theatre space to the sound of warplanes and helicopters with rocket launchers flying over the debris of the war zone and passing through the rubble of bombing. Eerily also we see the dying vegetation and undergrowth of the rough side of Scotland’s derelict working-class housing estates, bulldozed while people become homeless, the collateral damage of burnt-out cars, clearly hit by the opposing armed forces, making the connection between both. And all the while there’s the reminder you are passing through a war zone, with unexpected explosions before you can even reach your seat. 

We enter a dark stage with almost West German or post-Stalinist grey featureless buildings, which has two massive iron doors on either side like power shoulders on a suit. This fabulous entrance for the audience makes us already feel part of the action. Will we be asked to join in, with audience participation at some point crosses my mind?

As the space fills up it becomes apparent this is a far bigger space than it looked, troop after troop of school children arrived both of the GCSE and A-Level age and guided by their teachers. So despite my observation that it was the usual white middle-class audience, this production was also drawing in educational bodies and their students. 

What was inescapable throughout the production was the constant vision of the destruction of Gaza on our television screens every day. And as the audience files through those great iron doors into Dunsinane Castle we look like refugees fleeing the devastation of war. And still, they pour through the iron gates, as if entering Egypt at the Rafah Crossing. 

Let the Play Begin

The lights go down and we can hear the witches breath like an ill wind blowing over our heads and across the space. Lady Macbeth is reading the account of Macbeth’s meeting with the witches, like a slinky sexy celebrity goddess reading about how to get rich quick by going on ‘I’m a celebrity – get me out of here’, the plan already hatched in her head. 

Enter Macbeth bloodied, in modern-day combat fatigues.

The lead players Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma were as expected better than good, in the central roles and words written by William Shakespeare. The three witches like young sprites from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, were supremely eerie and believable.. but our minds are already blown by being bombed as we walk through the rubble at the entrance.

The theatre setting and enterance set against the destruction in Gaza.
The theatre setting and entrance set against the destruction in Gaza.

The sound and set more than matched the script written more than 400 years ago. It was brought up to date like a blockbuster movie, but one that would have to stick in the mind, and be recalled from memory, (unless some clever person recorded it). But even had this been recorded, the sensations of entering a war zone, and jumping out of one’s skin as an explosion goes off as you pass through those gates could not be replicated on film. 

There have been a couple of what I’d describe as ‘snotty’ middle-class reviews of this production, albeit they didn’t have the balls to criticise Fiennes, and mostly aimed their critiques at younger players… who were being given great roles and opportunities. (The Stage – which really should know better wrote ‘𝘪𝘵 𝘪𝘴 𝘪𝘵𝘴 𝘭𝘢𝘤𝘬 𝘰𝘧 𝘤𝘳𝘦𝘢𝘵𝘪𝘷𝘦 𝘳𝘪𝘴𝘬 𝘰𝘳 𝘪𝘯𝘯𝘰𝘷𝘢𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯’, and ‘𝘪𝘵’𝘴 𝘴𝘵𝘰𝘭𝘪𝘥 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘭𝘢𝘳𝘨𝘦𝘭𝘺 𝘵𝘩𝘳𝘪𝘭𝘭-𝘧𝘳𝘦𝘦.’) 

Really? I’m not sure what most productions can do with a 400-year-old classic script, where the trad audience wants trad performance. We’ve already got a certain amount of Ethnic Inclusion in major roles, with young performers actually getting their feet on an actual stage, instead of busking. And then there is the venue. Not in a city centre, in an actual warehouse. But yes they could have done more to encourage a more inclusive audience too. But short of giving tickets away, I’m not sure how that would happen. They brought major players to an industrial estate. And frankly, it was a fabulous production from walking in the door to leaving.

Perhaps the education process can go further and encourage kids from such areas to believe they can do anything. They too could be on that stage. 

But my final thoughts, which I returned to time and again throughout this most brilliant modern production was, Oh Palestine. And nothing conveyed a recent conversation more than the lines of MacDuff in Act 4 after the murder of his children: 

‘𝘋𝘪𝘥 𝘩𝘦𝘢𝘷𝘦𝘯 𝘭𝘰𝘰𝘬 𝘰𝘯 𝘈𝘯𝘥 𝘯𝘰𝘵 𝘵𝘢𝘬𝘦 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘪𝘳 𝘱𝘢𝘳𝘵? 𝘍𝘦𝘭𝘭 𝘴𝘭𝘢𝘶𝘨𝘩𝘵𝘦𝘳 𝘰𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘪𝘳 𝘴𝘰𝘶𝘭𝘴. 𝘏𝘦𝘢𝘷𝘦𝘯 𝘳𝘦𝘴𝘵 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘮 𝘯𝘰𝘸’
B𝘦 𝘵𝘩𝘪𝘴 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘸𝘩𝘦𝘵𝘴𝘵𝘰𝘯𝘦 𝘰𝘧 𝘺𝘰𝘶𝘳 𝘴𝘸𝘰𝘳𝘥. 𝘓𝘦𝘵 𝘨𝘳𝘪𝘦𝘧 c𝘰𝘯𝘷𝘦𝘳𝘵 𝘵𝘰 𝘢𝘯𝘨𝘦𝘳. 𝘉𝘭𝘶𝘯𝘵 𝘯𝘰𝘵 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘩𝘦𝘢𝘳𝘵; 𝘦𝘯𝘳𝘢𝘨𝘦 𝘪𝘵’
‘𝘐𝘴𝘳𝘢𝘦𝘭 i𝘴 𝘳𝘪𝘱𝘦 𝘧𝘰𝘳 𝘴𝘩𝘢𝘬𝘪𝘯𝘨, 𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘯𝘪𝘨𝘩𝘵 𝘪𝘴 𝘭𝘰𝘯𝘨 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘯𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘳 𝘧𝘪𝘯𝘥𝘴 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘥𝘢𝘺’.

𝐏𝐨𝐞𝐦 𝐟𝐨𝐫 𝐏𝐚𝐥𝐞𝐬𝐭𝐢𝐧𝐞 🇵🇸

Image of the poem by Donnelly Artist
Image of the poem by Donnelly Artist
Where is the boy who used to sit on the half demolished wall 
Pouring sand from his infant hands? 
Where is the old man who used to read the headlines out loud 
So his neighbours could hear the news? 
I used to know my sister’s house, but the road is Unrecognisable - Her blue painted door and pretty curtains 
Are only heartbreak now.. 
And my Mother weeps for the flower of Palestine, 
Lying dead in her arms.. 
While I eat the dry dust of my own Country. 
Boys throw stones in defiance 
And young girls shout..
“From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will be Free” 
But I, I am one with the Land, 
I am the Land 
I am Palestine

© DonnellyArtist

Macbeth directed by Simon Godwin is at the Depot, Liverpool, until 20 December, and at the Royal Highland Centre, Edinburgh, 12-27 January; Dock X, London, 10 February-23 March; and Shakespeare Theatre Company, Washington DC, 9 April-5 May.

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