Macbeth, Dir. Simon Godwin, London 2024.

Just back from London and the blasted heath of Canada Water to see Simon Godwin’s production of Macbeth. It took place in a gigantic warehouse, where audiences filed past a burnt-out car in an imaginary war-torn city, and the sound of helicopters whirred overhead. The seats were packed so closely together, I could feel the man behind me sighing on the back of my neck.

Overall I liked the boldness of it – no black sets with actors dressed in black here: Godwin and cast wants us to have a visceral experience. The witches are three female refugees from a nameless conflict, and Ralph Fiennes’ Macbeth appears in army fatigues and flak jacket, fresh from the war zone.

There’s a sense in his performance  that Shakespeare’s tyrant could, actually, be any of us. That’s surely part of Shakespeare’s conception – Macbeth is an Everyman, and that’s what makes him so horrifying. It was a pleasure to see the character played with subtlety and clarity of speech. Fiennes brought depth to the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech – not simply the conclusion of a psychopathic killer, but a kind of unravelling of grief for his lost wife – a sense that they were both part of a whole, and now, without her, what was the point of going on? Here was a man who had achieved his ambitions at enormous cost, and found them turning to ash in his hands.

Indira Varma was also excellent as a glamorous, brittle Lady Macbeth – the driving force of the action. Like Fiennes, she brought normality to the role – busily  wiping blood off things as if tidying up the house after a particularly wild party. It was not really a production where the idea of demonic possession was taken seriously, but rather, the overriding impression was: “There but for the grace of God go I”.

The rest of the cast were strong and special mention must be made of Ben Turner as Macduff. The scene where he is told of the murder of his wife and children brought tears to my eyes – instead of the usual fury and shouting, we had long pauses and a sense of delayed shock that was quietly heartbreaking.

Subtlety and realism is, in fact, the tenor of the whole production. If you like high-energy Macbeths you might be disappointed, but Fiennes’ conception of the character is more of a slow-burn thing. That’s not to say that Godwin avoided the play’s gorier aspects – it was a production drenched in blood and the lighting and pyrotechnic effects were excellent – just that it strove to reveal the complex psychology of those who “make our faces vizards to our hearts, / Disguising what they are”.