This joint production of Macbeth from ETT (English Touring Theatre), Bristol Old Vic, Shakespeare North Playhouse, Northern Stage and Theatres de la Ville de Luxembourg, is set in modern day Scotland. 

I’m sure many Shakespeare purists won’t take to this production. The use of video on stage is commonplace, but that mixed with different styles of music, modern ‘takes’ on things, and the violence may well be off-putting for some.

Lady Macbeth is well played by Laura Elsworthy, neurotic from the start. It is unusual for Lady Macbeth to open the play, it is usually opened by the three Witches. So instead, we see her waiting restlessly in a modern-day apartment, waiting for news from her husband which comes as a video message. 

In this production, the witches are not onstage.  We see them in various guises on film, as voices, and as figments of Macbeth’s imagination or in his nightmares. 

Macbeth, played by Mike Noble, is softly spoken, before his descent into tyranny and then madness. By the end of the play he is clearly out of his depth as a King.   Noble portrays the complexity of the character well, and the couple as a whole are very well matched. 

The Macbeths are clearly in love with each other. It’s a very sexy, charismatic marriage.  We witness lots of physicality including dancing with each other and a scene where he erotically massages her feet. 

Some of the action is off-stage but reflected on screens above, or in the kitchen partially hidden onstage.  There are also some nice moments of audience participation, although inviting audience members onto stage for the banquet where Banquo appears could easily go either way! The night I was there, it worked well. With well behaved volunteers. 

There is a lot of talent on the stage. I particularly enjoyed strong supporting performances from Leo Wan as Ross (who also has the comic turn as the porter for some much needed light relief), Coral Sinclair as Lady MacDuff, Ross Waiton in multiple roles as Duncan, a murderer and Siward, Jasmine Elcock as Malcolm, and Lola Aluko as Lennox. The children involved (who are local to each stage on the tour so are not named in the programme) were delightful and very talented, especially so the little girl at the end! (no spoilers…).

This production was definitely from the school of thought of modernising the Bard’s work, and making it accessible to a modern audience.   The witches do have some of the most memorable lines in the play, but keeping them as figments of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s imagination and appearing in Macbeth’s nightmares didn’t fully work for me, but I respect the desire to try something different. Treating the material in a flexible, fresh way can work for a modern audience, and last night, I would estimate the audience was about 75% under the age of 18, as there were clearly a lot of school parties in. Leaving the auditorium at the interval and at the end, it was clear to me that the majority had enjoyed and understood the production, so, I think that is a success!

The suffocation and murder of Lady Macduff and her child were very effective, if disturbing, and the decision to lighten the mood slightly with a glitter ball, and Dua Lipa playing in the background, was successful, but I wasn’t quite sure about the karaoke scene with 70s disco hit 'Yes Sir, I Can Boogie'.    

Somehow, I missed Lady Macbeth vaping (I had a very tall person sat in front!) but I certainly was aware of her using a breast pump in her opening scene, setting the mood for her mental deterioration as a result of losing her baby. That worked well. The violence on and off stage was also very well done, if pretty horrific. For me, the verse at times was lost, and it was at times tricky to work out who was who, for some of the minor, less well known characters. 

All in all, I enjoyed this production, and clearly most of the largely young audience around me did too. Bloody and gruesome at times, it is a good re-telling of a classic tale of a flawed couple, slipping into madness. 

This show was reviewed on the 13th March 2024 at the Oxford Playhouse where the show runs until the 16th March 2024.  Tickets available here: Macbeth | Oxford Playhouse

Full tour dates can be found here: ETT - English Touring Theatre

Review written by Ruth Hawkins


Photo credit: The Other Richard

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