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Macbeth at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre: Review

Home » Reviews » Macbeth at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre: Review

I was so looking forward to Macbeth at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre. A female, Lucy Ellinson, was going to be playing the lead, and I thought that this would provide an exciting perspective on the play. I have seen many productions of Macbeth, having studied it moons ago for GCSE English. However, while this production was wonderful in terms of diversity, I have never come away quite so disappointed with any production.

Lucy Ellinson (Macbeth) image Johan Persson
Lucy Ellinson (Macbeth) image Johan Persson

Macbeth is Shakespeare’s most intense and terrifying tragedy, dramatising the damaging physical and psychological effects of political ambition on those who seek power for its own sake. However, in this production, the direction from Christopher Haydon, seems to transform it into a comedy. At one point I wondered whether Christmas has arrived early and I had just entered Pantomime season.

The start of this production seemed promising, with the witches emerging from modern battle-gear to deliver their ‘when shall we three meet again’ speech. The use of strobe lighting and modern dancing cleverly modernised these three weird sisters. Lead witch, Bryony Davies, is my stand out performer of this production, with her clear diction.

Unfortunately the production didn’t live up to this opening high. I am no Shakespeare snob, but, for me, the true beauty of any of his plays are in his words, and in Macbeth there are so many beautiful and famous speeches. The excellent Paul Hickey, as Macduff, excepted, I felt actors rushed lines or failed to project their voices to the extent that little of that wonderful dialogue was clearly conveyed. Ellinson’s delivery of Macbeth was simply not strong enough for me. I felt no chemistry between the two leads. Lady Macbeth is supposed to be one of Shakespeare’s most frightening female characters, but this was far from the character I saw on stage on opening night.

Lucy Ellinson (Macbeth) image Johan Persson
Lucy Ellinson (Macbeth) image Johan Persson

Hannah Sand, Assistant Director, writes in the programme about the chaos in Macbeth. This production was certainly chaotic, perhaps best exemplified when Banquo’s ghost appears. From the beginning, Banquo is seen as Macbeth’s closest friend. However, their friendship is challenged after an encounter with the weird sisters, where the witches promise kingship to Macbeth, and Banquo’s descendants are promised to sit on the throne. In Macbeth’s selfishness, he murders Banquo, receiving word during a banquet that Banquo has been murdered. Shortly after receiving the news, Macbeth imagines he sees the bloody corpse sitting on an empty stool at the banquet.

This is such a significant event in the play, where guilt has overcome Macbeth, and the imagined ghost of his murdered friend haunts him. Although every murder is meant to benefit him in some way (by bringing him the crown, greater security, or peace of mind), ironically every murder simply makes his life full of more unhappiness, insecurity, and torment. In this production, this crucial and dramatic moment is portrayed as a farce. The banquet is reminiscent of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party from Alice in Wonderland, and what is supposed to be a frightening ghost, sees Banquo dressed in a teddy bear costume. He removes the bear head and stands on the table centre-stage – a furry, Yeti-like creature towering above Macbeth.

Theo Ogundipe (Banquo) image Johan Persson
Theo Ogundipe (Banquo) image Johan Persson/

I love the Royal Exchange Theatre. I have seen hundreds of productions there over the past 30 years, but this is the worst I have ever seen. This was a mockery of Shakespeare. Thank goodness there were two shining lights in the chaotic quagmire of a production in the form of Bryony Davies and Paul Hickey. A truly disappointing evening.


Macbeth is at The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester from 13 September to 19 October 2019.

Liz Ratcliffe
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Liz Ratcliffe
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  • Whilst not the worst Macbeth I’ve seen (THAT was Young Vic set in Alice in Wonderland corridors accompanied by Heavy Metal a few years back) I was very disappointed. Making Macbeth a female simply. doesn’t. work. If Miss Ellison had played the role as Shakespeare wrote the bl00dy thing, ie as a male, she’d have have done a cracking job. But this pointless “look-at-me” directorial whim was ludicrous. Your point about the dialogue is soo pertinent. Shakespeare IS the words, something too many pretentious directors forget – or probably don’t “get”.

Liz Ratcliffe Written by Liz Ratcliffe