‘Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth!’

Dare we even speak the name? Well, Leeds Playhouse certainly does in director Amy Leach’s gripping and adept adaptation of William Shakespeare’s timeless classic in which earthy, energetic and electrifying performances abound.      

On press night, the cast delivered a splendid ensemble performance which grew in intensity with every passing minute, thoroughly bathing the audience in the bloody madness of 11th century Scottish dynastic intrigue and civil war.

For the uninitiated, Macbeth is a talented, successful and well-respected warrior general in the army of King Duncan. Though somewhat advanced in years, Duncan is the head of a successful, stable kingdom. He has two sons, each with children of their own, thereby ensuring the continued political and social equilibrium of Scotland. Duncan is kind, generous and fair. People like Duncan. Be like Duncan.      

Ash Hunter (Macbeth) and the cast at Leeds Playhouse. Pic: Kirtsen McTernan.

Macbeth isn’t like Duncan and neither is his wife, Lady Macbeth. In fact, the Macbeths are ruthless, mendacious and very, very ambitious. On stage, this leads to sheer, bloody, and magnificent madness. Picture the scene: silver lattice towers rise from the floor, sometimes standing as trees, others representing the sheer, brutal walls of forlorn Scottish castles. From these towers, thin columns of light spear the dark, cavernous stage, casting a sepulchral light on the players and the growing Caledonian carnage.

Macbeth (Ash Hunter) and Lady Macbeth (Jessica Baglow) bestride the stage with twin performances which fully live up the magisterial words of the Bard of Avon. Hunter is engaging and terrifying in his depiction of the rise and fall of Macbeth, brilliantly conveying the lust for power which engulfs the man, and the capacity for violence that equips him to deliver on his ambitions. Baglow delivers a powerful, nuanced performance in her role as the power behind the throne. In her capable hands, the audience feels the visceral pain of woman whose first child is stillborn, and the loss of her second to miscarriage.

With their thrilling performances, both Baglow and Hunter take us with them on their mutual journey of vaulting, murderous ambition, and succeed in completely enveloping the audience with their slow slide into an abyss of guilt and madness. Special mention must also be made of Adam Bassett’s splendid performance, especially in the scene where his character, Macduff, is given the kind of news that no soul should ever receive. The sheer, emotional power of that scene will live long in the memory of all those present.  

As for the Scottish play, Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in the opening decade of the 17th century. Following the death of Queen Elizabeth after a reign of more than 44 years and the accession of James, the Scottish King, to the crown of England, the kingdom was somewhat on edge. Within the ranks of Shakespearian scholarship, there are some who believe that Macbeth was written to celebrate James’s accession to the throne by celebrating his ancestors (James believed himself to be a descendent of Banquo). But others point to a darker purpose, seeing the play as a warning to a new king, one who was unfamiliar to, and with, his new subjects.

Daniel Poyser (Banquo) and Ash Hunter (Macbeth). Pic: Kirsten McTernan.

James was a firm believer in the divine right of Kings. He believed that a monarch of royal blood held their throne by the ordinance of God, and that such a monarch was never wrong. It doesn’t take a genius to see that as a potential route to murder, madness and tyranny, and it’s perfectly possible to see Shakespeare, in Macbeth, signalling that not only can a king be wrong, he can also be mad, bad and dangerous to know.

In this splendid adaptation of that theatrical warning, in which Leach has drawn together all the threads required to produce something special, there’s a lot to admire. Set and costume, light and sound all combine to create a compelling, haunted atmosphere. 

By Alfred Searls

Main image: Jessica Baglow (Lady Macbeth) and Ash Hunter (Macbeth). Pic: Kirtsen McTernan.

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Macbeth is at Leeds Playhouse until March 23, 2024. For more information, click here.