Review: One Whole Night, White Bear Theatre - good performances but the play runs out of ideas
Review: Rock 'n' Roll, Hampstead Theatre - less talk more feeling, please

Review: David Tennant and Cush Jumbo in Macbeth, Donmar Warehouse - headphones pros and cons

Macbeth Donmar Warehouse David Tennant Cush Jumbo 2023
David Tennant playing Macbeth was always going to be a hot ticket. (David Tennant playing any character on stage will be a hot ticket.)

Why then stage it at the Donmar Warehouse, which has such a small capacity? Is it because of the headphones?

You see, this production isn't your standard 'actors on stage speaking'. The actors are mic'd up - nothing unusual about that - but the audience hears everything through headphones, including the soundscape and 'other' voices.

That is much easier to set up and deliver in a small theatre, given that everyone has to have working headphones to experience the play.

What it does is put the voices of the actors in your ear. You can hear the shouts and, more importantly, the whispers. It means the actors have a different performance platform.

There is no need for projected 'stage whispers' because you have the natural effect of the actors whispering in your ear. Performances can be smaller while maintaining the intensity.

It also gives the Donmar three performance spaces. There is the raised white, 'stone' like slab, which acts as both stage and table and a glass-walled booth at the back of the stage (Ivo Van Hove/Jan Versweyveld-esque?).

And then there are the disembodied voices you hear in your ear. It transports the witches and their prophecies into Macbeth's (David Tennant) head.

However, hearing the play through headphones, while it delivers an enhanced and unique experience in many ways, is not a wholly satisfying experience, but more of that later.

Tennant's performance is electric. There is charm and charisma, and later something wild and dangerous - almost frantic.

We first see him washing off the blood of battle. It is a quiet, contemplative act in contrast with Lady Macbeth's (Cush Jumbo's) 'out damn spot' hand-washing scene.

The cleaned-up Macbeth then lies prostrate in front of the king before receiving his new title. It's a gesture he repeats when he is king, and his governance and mental control are crumbling, suggesting regret or perhaps a desire to be ruled once again.

Lady Macbeth is dressed in a long white dress, in contrast with the black kilts of the rest of the cast. Her descent into madness is more fevered than outright crazy and has more impact because of it. I can't remember it being done better.

The glass booth at the back of the stage is where the musicians sit for the most part, delivering an atmospheric, live soundtrack. It's also a space for the spectres of murdered characters and an anteroom for conversations about Macbeth.

It's a space that is both separate from Macbeth and somewhere from which characters can try to get his attention, haunt or shake him awake from his crumbling reason.

Through the headphones, you get a soundscape of dialogue, music and nature sounds, which makes this an atmospheric and intimate production.

But it can also feel like you are listening to radio play, something the Porter jokes about, in a jarring scene where the fourth wall is broken.

Sometimes, the actors' performances you are watching feel disconnected from what you are hearing through the headphones. Occasionally, I wanted to remove them and hear the actors in the space rather than through headphones.

The headphones enhance but also diminish the experience. Great performances, choices and staging (for the most part), but I'd love the chance to see it again without the headphones.

Because of that it's a difficult one to rate, but I've settled on  ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.

Macbeth, Donmar Warehouse

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Max Webster

Starring David Tennant & Cush Jumbo

Running time: 1 hour and 55 minutes without an interval

Booking until 10 February, visit the Donmar website for more details.

This was a preview performance.

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