Jan 18 2024 | By More

★★★★☆    High impact

Royal Highland Centre: Sat 13 – Sat 27 Jan 2024
Review by Thom Dibdin

There’s plenty to mull over in the high concept, high impact, high-everything modern dress production of Macbeth touring to a quartet of created theatre spaces – and this month spending a fortnight at the Royal Highland Centre.

Not least in some magnificent performances – particularly from Indira Varma as Lady Macbeth – but also in its ability to bring the play into the 21st century. As such, it begins to question the role that tyrannical individuals take in the prosecution of wars; and how those wars which start as affairs between sovereign nations move on to become civilian nightmares.

Indira Varma and Ralph Fiennes. Pic Matt Humphrey

What this Macbeth does best of all, however – and it does it very well indeed – is tell Shakespeare’s story and make his words clear and accessible to all.

It starts with Simon Godwin’s slick, fast paced direction which uses Frankie Bradshaw’s open, island set to its maximum advantage with its central steps, mirrored sliding doors and ability to bring the whole auditorium into play.

The scenes pile in one after the other without pause for thought. Jai Morjaria’s lighting makes great use of the briefest of blackouts to enhance the play’s ghostly entrances and exits.


Then there is the actually speaking of Shakespeare’s lines, with the performances there to serve the text. Ralph Fiennes is clarity incarnate as Macbeth, using the internal angst of the lines to drive the whole piece.

Steffan Rhodri. Pic: Marc Brenner

Even in the brief moments before meeting the three Witches who foretell his rise to power, Fiennes’s outwardly hirpling gait is belied by lithe moves when called to action. Indeed, as they enter, hot from success on the battlefield, Steffan Rhodri’s stoic Banquo appears the more kingly of the pair. Rhodri’s ghostly appearance in the dinner scene is ice-cold to Fiennes’ increasingly flamboyant displays of madness.

However, it is when Varma and Fiennes are on stage together that the full enormity of the Macbeths as a domestic couple is realised. When alone, plotting Duncan’s murder for example, there are hints at what they lack and seek. When in company, Varma’s intensity and focus allows Fiennes’s Macbeth to wander.

The supporting cast are almost universally strong in ensuring the production’s clarity. Although it feels slightly ironic to have Keith Fleming as King Duncan, given his own magnificent turn as Macbeth in the Citizens’ The Macbeths of 2021.


Ben Turner makes real sense of the role of Macduff, notably in the scene in England after he has fled his castle leaving his wife and children to the mercy of Macbeth. The scene with Duncan’s son Malcolm (Ewan Black), in which they discuss their plans against Macbeth and which often jars, here moves smoothly into the action and emphasises the nature of their desire for revenge.

Lola Shalam, Danielle Fiamanya and Lucy Mangan. Pic: Matt Humphrey

Lucy Mangan, Danielle Fiamanya and Lola Shalam ensure that there is a suitably etherial side to the three Witches. If they are much younger actors than might be expected to take up the roles, their war-soiled costumes hint at another story.

Macbeth’s second encounter with them, when they summon greater forces to make even more predictions about his future, is particularly cleverly done. The three use the watching Murderers (Jake Needs and Michael Hodgson, both excellent) like marionettes, voicing their words about Birnam Wood and the like.

war zone

Clarity of words and storytelling aside, the job of theatre is to reflect its times. It’s great to see Fiennes give his Macbeth, even if there is something ineffably dated about his delivery. Even better to witness Varma give hers.

Godwin is undoubtedly a great technician, then. Yet there is an underlying question here about what he is asking of the script itself. With a flaming pathway up to the venue doors and rubble strewn war zone anti-chamber to the auditorium itself, visible in many scenes, this is a Scotland beset by civil war where the worst crime is treason to the crown.

The English army shield themselves with branches from Birnam Wood. Pic: Matt Humphrey

Of course Shakespeare was seeking to justify James VI and I’s royal lineage. And many Macbeths use it to examine the frailty of power. But here, the squads of soldiers and war zone detritus can not help but call in mind the civilian tragedies of both Ukraine and Gaza.

No matter how deeply Fiennes might go to explore the nature of madness in the lust for power, the production’s overwhelming take away is the concern of how to cope with the mad dogs who have gained such power.


Which is an interesting theoretical debate in Scotland, perhaps. But one wonders how it will play, when it transfers to Washington DC and is staged just a few miles from the attempted insurrection of 2020, in this presidential election year.

Running time: Two hours and 40 minutes
Royal Highland Centre, Ingliston, EH28 8NB
Sat 13 – Sat 27 January 2024
Mon – Sat: 7.30pm; Mats Thurs, Sat: 2.30pm.
Tickets and details: Book here.

Dock X, Canada Water Retail park, Surrey Quays, London SE16 2XU
Sat 10 February – Sat 23 March 2024
Mon – Sat: 7.30pm; Mats Thurs (not Feb 15, but Wed 14), Sat (not Feb 12): 2.30pm.
Tickets and details: Book here.

1301 W ST. NE, Washington, DC 20018, USA
Tue 9 April  – Sun 5 May 2024
Tue – Sun: Times vary.
Tickets and details: Book here.

The war zone anti-chamber. Pic: Matt Humphrey


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Comments (1)

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  1. Malc Dow says:

    I could go on about this at some length, but no spoilers hey!

    The venue itself is amazing, if you don’t know it, you should.

  2. John Smithson says:

    Absolutely magnificent.

    Seemed to capture the gradual descent into complete madness of a leader, and the sometimes feigned acquiescence of those around him, with an intense and almost frightening realism; and there wasn’t a single weak link in the cast as an ensemble.

    Ralph Fiennes’ diction in particular underlined the sheer quality of what was composed four hundred years ago, and the set and overall production values contributed to the building of an experience that was all-enveloping and left me with a feeling approaching that of emotional intoxication.