Reflections on Yaël Faber’s The Tragedy of Macbeth

A dark, dystopic and unsettling adaptation of a classic text.

Macbeth is returning quite strongly into the palate of cultural discourse. Recently, the trailer for Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand was released – a harrowing, quasi-Gothic filmic adaptation. Additionally, on October 5th, South-African director Yaël Farber opened her theatrical adaptation of Macbeth to London’s Almeida Theatre which, fortunately for me, opened a livestream option over the last weekend of October.

The ‘Scottish Play’ has an important place in my literary reservoir. I studied it twice in school and it continues to resonate. Its rendering of violence and how quickly we can abandon our conscience in favour of paving substanceless, meaningless paths that lead us to dead ends rather than to where we really want to go, still remains a personal reference point. When I discovered that James McArdle and Saoirse Ronan were starring as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, I couldn’t help but watch the play.

And that I did. Farber’s re-imagining is Caravaggian, dark – a visual feast. It is also sonically beautiful – woven into the play are live, original cello symphonies by Aoife Burke that contour the play’s every movement. Relying on stage lighting and a strong sense of the physical to purvey atmosphere, and not just on the power of Shakespeare’s language alone, Farber’s vision of a particular world – possessing no clear context, almost dystopic – is made manifest.  Although a sense of the Scottish fragrances the adaptation, the lack of specificity as to where the characters are and how they interact with the setting around them was, for me, a part of this adaptation’s power. Macbeth is thought of as a plot-heavy, busy play: but Farber whittles it down to something bare, unsettling, vulnerable. Its play on silence, ambiguity and the unsaid will resonate with me.  

The play opens with ‘the Witches’, who possess a kind of awkward beauty as onlookers always present on the stage, tossing onto the floor the boots of Macbeth’s victims. The male characters in the performance are clad in bullet-proof vests and black military gear: all too symbolic when bearing in mind the contemporary interest in questions around protest, vulnerability, abuses of power and control. This symbolism reaches its height in the final scene, Macduff’s fight and triumph over Macbeth, where both characters’ sense of their own power is deconstructed in order, for what it seems, to let ‘the good’ prevail. Above all, it reminded me of how powerful the physicality of live performance is: and, ultimately, what COVID-19 managed to make me forget.

‘The Witches’ and Lady Macbeth are clad similarly: but Ronan’s voice, in its sweet Irish cadence, shines. But her suicide, represented as a simple surrender into the arms of ‘the Witches’, unsettles to the core. So too does Akiya Henry’s monologues and singing throughout the play. Her portrayal of Lady Macduff reins in new thematic dimensions to the play that arguably have not been fully taken advantage of the play’s relationship to race, and what it means to love your family, to protect them and who they are, even in the face of death.

The only criticism I would weigh against Farber lies in how her interest in ambiguity and silence makes certain scenes lose the full range of their true emotional complexity. For instance, when Lady Macbeth reads her husband’s letter about his promotion as Thane of Cawdor in Act I, and her eventual confrontation with him about Duncan’s murder, the scene lacks a reason. In fact, it seems almost too beautiful, too easy – a moment of almost unreal marital cohesion.  

But Shakespearean adaptations deserve Farber’s clarity of vision. Macbeth asks the stars to ‘hide their fires’ in Act I Scene IV: but Farber manages to make her stars, her performers, shine brightly.

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