Review: Macbeth. Derby Theatre (touring)

A psychological tale of ‘vaulting’ ambition, coupled with destructive power, Macbeth is Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, yet remains one of his best known and most oft-quoted plays. This joint production by Derby Theatre and Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch is directed by Douglas Rintoul, with Paul Tinto as the eponymous tragic hero and Phoebe Sparrow as his redoubtable wife, Lady Macbeth.


The play begins through wafts of haze and an already dark and oppressive atmosphere. Our eyes are drawn to a blood red strip of light slicing through the charcoal grey stage. Immediately, you sense that ‘Something wicked this way comes…’ except we are in for surprise and a somewhat touching one at that.

As the three witches make their appearance and power through their invective, you realise that you are not in the presence of three ‘old crones’ but a potent force, highlighted through the actors’ unity of expression, movement and voice.

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We keenly anticipate the arrival of Macbeth himself and are not disappointed. Tinto is a rugged masculine presence, as befits a returning and much-heralded war hero. He strides across the stage with powerful purpose and his rich voice with its Scottish timbre is perfectly suited to deliver blank verse as if he were born to do so.

As Macbeth and his colleague Banquo stumble across the witches, the former receives a prophecy that he will become King of Scotland. Macbeth appears genuinely stunned and amazed, but soon gives in to the temptations of power and all that might entail.

When Tinto addresses the audience post-prophecy, his direct gaze takes us into his confidence and seemingly challenges one to become complicit in his ambition and longing. He skilfully presents Shakespeare’s rhetoric to visible effect and we find ourselves carried along with his over-arching wants.

Enter his masterfully manipulative wife to goad him into action and the tragedy begins to unfold. Cue regicide, corruption and the murder of innocents as the walls begin to close in on this, the ultimate power couple. Their blind ambition and ruthless desire for power feels presciently topical and forces us to consider what is happening in our own somewhat uncertain times. ‘What’s done cannot be undone….’ states Lady Macbeth; a warning to us all, perhaps.

Sparrow is a revelation in her role as Lady Macbeth. Her exquisite diction makes every line pack a powerful punch. A formidable force throughout, when her psychological breakdown finally happens, it is made acutely effective by her moving rendition of the infamous ‘Out, damned spot! Out, I say….’ speech as she tries to wash the ‘blood’ off her hands. For the first time, this reviewer found herself sympathising with a damaged young woman and the incipient guilt that she carries.

Furthermore, there is an austerity to the set design and costume which augments the gothic nature of the play. The sombre colour palette of the costumes chimes well with this; the only relief to the blacks, greys and maroons being the chain mail of the military armour reminding us that these are times of war. Clever use of lighting, silhouette and discordant soundscapes enhance the overall effect.

In a play where Shakespeare’s secondary characters are curiously undernourished, the ensemble cast lend necessary weight and development to what could be mere ciphers. Special mention here to Tilda Wickham as Malcolm and to Rikki Chamberlain as the Porter. The latter delights the audience with his very physical depiction of the effects of alcohol.

This is an expertly directed, clear and focused retelling of a play, whereby the traditional presentation works in its favour. Watch out for a particularly grisly and ghoulish ending which lends much credence to the statement that ‘Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ (Lord Acton)

Running time: 2hrs 30 mins (including interval)

Macbeth runs at Derby Theatre until Saturday 14th March

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