×

Theater Review: ‘Macbeth,’ Starring James McAvoy

James McAvoy stars in the haunting Shakespearean production from director Jamie Lloyd.

Why does a sane, successful army man heed a politically dubious, supernatural prophecy and then immediately act upon it? That’s the question facing anyone directing “Macbeth.” The unusually convincing answer from helmer Jamie Lloyd is: Youth. James McAvoy’s Macbeth is as heedless of thought as any young fighting man. He’s absolutely the center of this bloody horror show and it’s to Lloyd’s immense credit that his violently dystopic interpretation ultimately feels inevitable as it shines light into the play’s often unplumbed depths.

Designer Soutra Gilmour locks audiences onto two sides of her newly built traverse stage with multiple entrances allowing for sudden entrances and swift exits  —  in part, a metaphor for the play. Her war-torn, post-apocalyptic presentation sees the actors in grunge-style combat-wear in a world topped off by broken-glass windows above makeshift furniture in ramshackle military encampments. The immediacy of it all makes audiences feel thrillingly  —  and dangerously  —  complicit.

Adam Silverman’s caustic lighting and Alex Baranowski’s soundscape of industrial-style growls and metallic stings ramp up the sense of paranoia to such an extent that one of the many fears initially conjured is that atmosphere will swamp the text. But Lloyd is canny. His headlong, breathless opening  —  with notably fierce, faceless witches in gas masks  —  delivers short, sharp shocks. Then, having established such high stakes, he can adopt a slower pace in the establishing scenes that follow, thereby allowing for rare clarity in the storytelling.

Popular on Variety

The knock-on effect is that in a play traditionally bound-up in the tension between Macbeth and his wife, the surrounding characters emerge more strongly, creating a much more fully woven texture.

As is often the case, Macduff comes close to stealing the second act with Jamie Ballard beautifully calibrating his emotional response to the news of the murder of his wife and children. But often under-realized characters also shine here, notably Hugh Ross’ wisely benevolent Duncan. His calm generosity makes his murder much more upsetting. That in turn ups the sense of difficulty and terror that proceeds to engulf the Macbeths.

Lean and taut with purpose, Claire Foy’s Lady Macbeth wastes no time in deliberation, but she never descends into mere briskness. Indeed, long-held stares between her and her husband across the width of the stage convey an acute sense of loss between them  —  a child, maybe?  —  and a ravening need for sexual or, at the very least, emotional connection.

That desire, and Macbeth’s mounting inability either to fulfill or to quench it, is a permanent undercurrent to McAvoy’s performance. He charts Macbeth’s “growth” from a warrior elated by blood lust to a man committing unspeakable acts who is self-aware enough to be grimly determined. Quivering with rage or, for the brutal murder of Lady Macduff and her son, icily stilled by viciousness, he powerfully conveys a man increasingly desperate to stop himself heeding the thoughts and fears threatening to overwhelm him.

Highly effective fight and movement direction by Kate Waters and Ann Yee make the confrontations not just bloody and violent but as difficult to watch as they should be. That’s a risky approach but it pays off by forcing audiences not just to recognize but to feel the consequences of unspeakable actions.

The gore level is high and the impact throughout is visceral. This plays well to a moviegoing younger generation which Lloyd’s new four-production season is aiming to encourage into the theater. But nothing comes at the text’s expense and the cumulative effect heightens the drama. When a blood-drenched Macduff brandishes Macbeth’s head, the house is chilled with none of the attendant sounds of embarrassment that usually accompany such huge gestures.

In his final scenes, McAvoy looks gaunt, hollowed out by horrified self-understanding that makes him shake with silent laughter. It’s scary for being so unexpected a move. Its audacity matches a production intent upon showing not its own imagination but Shakespeare’s.

A Howard Panter, Adam Speers and Evanna White for Ambassador Theater Group and Jamie Lloyd Productions presentation of a play in two acts by William Shakespeare. Directed by Jamie Lloyd.

Sets and costumes, Soutra Gilmour; lighting, Adam Silverman; sound and music, Alex Baranowski; movement, Ann Yee; production stage manager, Sunita Hinduja. Opened, reviewed Feb. 22, 2013. Running time: 2 HOURS, 40 MIN.

Macbeth – James McAvoy
Lady Macbeth – Claire Foy
Banquo – Forbes Masson
Macduff – Jamie Ballard
Duncan, Doctor – Hugh Ross

With: Graeme Dalling, Lisa Gardner, Kevin Guthrie, Richard Hansell, Allison McKenzie, Catherine Murray, Callum O’Neill, Mark Quartley.

Theater Review: 'Macbeth,' Starring James McAvoy

More Legit

  • Grand Horizons review

    'Grand Horizons': Theater Review

    Don’t stop me if you’ve heard this one, as you surely must have: A nice, all-American family is in the process of breaking up and trying to make this sad state of affairs seem funny in Bess Wohl’s Broadway outing “Grand Horizons.” After 50 years of marriage, Nancy (the ever-elegant Jane Alexander) and Bill (the [...]

  • Uncle Vanya review

    'Uncle Vanya': Theater Review

    Director Ian Rickson has had success with Chekhov in the past. His exquisitely balanced, tragicomic production of “The Seagull” (2007 in London, 2008 on Broadway) was well-nigh flawless with, among others, Kristin Scott Thomas as painfully vulnerable as she was startlingly funny. Sadly, with his production of “Uncle Vanya,” despite felicities in the casting, lightning [...]

  • The Welkin review

    'The Welkin': Theater Review

    A life hanging perilously in the balance of charged-up, polarized opinions: This courtroom drama could easily have been titled “Twelve Angry Women.” But playwright Lucy Kirkwood (“Chimerica,” “The Children”) is far too strong and imaginative a writer for so hand-me-down a cliché. Instead she opts for “The Welkin,” an old English term for the vault [...]

  • Tina Fey attends the "Mean Girls"

    Tina Fey Announces Movie Adaptation of Broadway's 'Mean Girls' Musical

    It’s good to be mean…the “Mean Girls” musical, that is. Producers of the hit Broadway show announced today that the Tony-nominated production is being adapted for the big screen for Paramount Pictures. The musical is based on the 2004 movie of the same name. “I’m very excited to bring ‘Mean Girls’ back to the big screen,’ Tina Fey, [...]

  • Freestyle Love Supreme

    Watch Lin-Manuel Miranda and 'Freestyle Love Supreme' in Exclusive Clip From Sundance Documentary

    Before turning “Hamilton” and “In the Heights” into musical phenomenons, Lin-Manuel Miranda could have been found on stage, spouting off-the-cuff rhymes with his improv group, “Freestyle Love Supreme.” After performing across the globe, the troupe — founded 15 years ago by Miranda, his frequent collaborator Thomas Kail and emcee Anthony Veneziale — made its Broadway [...]

  • Ariana Grande 7 Rings

    Rodgers & Hammerstein Are Having a Moment Thanks to Ariana Grande, 'Oklahoma!'

    Jaws dropped when it was revealed that the late musical theater titans Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were granted 90% of the songwriting royalties on “7 Rings,” Ariana Grande’s 2019 No. 1 hit. The dominant motif of Grande’s song is taken from “My Favorite Things,” the cornerstone of R&H’s 1959 musical “The Sound of [...]

  • A Soldiers Play review

    'A Soldier's Play': Theater Review

    Now, that’s what I call a play! Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “A Soldier’s Play,” now being revived on Broadway by Roundabout Theatre Company, packs plenty of dramatic tension into smoldering issues of racial justice and injustice, military honor and dishonor, and the solemn struggle to balance their harrowing demands on characters who are only [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content