Film review: Macbeth

Shakespeare’s prophecies, bloody rivalries, murder and hauntings are given a contemporary militaristic edge in this London production of Macbeth, starring Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma.

May 09, 2024, updated May 09, 2024
Ralph Fiennes, the consummate Shakespearean actor, in 'Macbeth'. Photo: Marc Brenner / supplied

Ralph Fiennes, the consummate Shakespearean actor, in 'Macbeth'. Photo: Marc Brenner / supplied

The attraction of watching celebrities perform in major theatre productions has launched a new artform: the film of the play. Earlier this year, the West End production of Vanya starring Andrew Scott (Fleabag, Ripley) was screened, and Welsh actor Michael Sheen is showing later this month in a National Theatre Live play about the National Health Service, of all things.

It is a hybrid medium that does a disservice to both, lacking the thrill of intimate performance and the focused creativity of film. But what it does offer is access to an experience that can be savoured for the quality of its cast and unique stage direction.

For this Macbeth, the star is English actor Ralph Fiennes, whose resume runs from James Bond to Harry Potter. Director Simon Godwin, former director of the National Theatre Company and now based in Washington with the Shakespeare Theatre Company, has used Dock X, a purpose-built theatre space in London whose industrial, riverside origins sit well with the production’s grey and brutalist feel.

Cast against Fiennes as Lady Macbeth is Indira Varma, best known as the star of a different Game of Thrones in which she played Ellaria Sand, lover of Oberyn and mother of the slithering Sand Snakes. As a conniving beauty, she has form.

The opening scenes which share the first prophecies of the three witches test the mood of every Macbeth. Justin Kurzel’s 2015 film portrayed them as wandering gypsies, while Joel Coen’s crow-like witch was a writhing harbinger of dark portent. Here, three young women in bleached fatigues and puffer jackets could be on their way to a Glasgow pub but for the magical prophecies they speak.

There is a process of tuning your senses into Shakespearean language that can take a moment or two to engage. But it soon becomes clear that Fiennes’ Macbeth is a weak man who is fearful and at first sceptical as the witches hail him as a future Scottish king. But having taken the bait, he grasps at their later prophecy that seems to offer immortality; no man born of woman can harm him and he cannot be overthrown until Birnam Wood moves to Dunsinane.

Wearing this protective cloak, Macbeth is vulnerable to the urgings of his wife to take advantage of the visit of King Duncan to hurry his ambition along.

Fiennes is the consummate Shakespearean actor who delivers lines with an immediacy that summons up the drama as it unfolds. Varma, also a regular theatre actor, is a strong presence, although her psychological grasp of the role is less coherent. She transforms from a giddy lover welcoming her husband home from battle to a bloody-thirsty murderess without much in between, then flips again into an anguished wraith who roams the halls trying to rid her hands of blood.

The play looks as though it is set in a war zone with part of the front of the stage wrecked, and the characters in army fatigues have their names emblazoned on their chest. It is not modernised as such, but the war-like cast of the design suits a contemporary mindset in which world leaders like Putin conduct themselves like Macbeth, but without the guilt.

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The second half is dazzling. It has the best and most moving speeches, and the staging overcomes the limitations of live theatre in creative ways. Best of these is the procession of soldiers obscured by large branches marching down through the audience as Birnam Wood moves to Dunsinane and the final prophecy comes true.

Macbeth is in cinemas from May 3.

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