A Shiny Life For Me!

a personal review blog by Bianca


29 January 2024
Donmar Warehouse
3.0 out of 5.0 stars

Macbeth, currently running at the Donmar Warehouse, is one of those hotly anticipated, quickly sold out shows that everyone’s talking about. I love seeing David Tennant get his Shakespeare on, so had to grab myself a set of tickets and see if this new production lives up to the hype.

The most standout part of this new production is binaural stereo technology creating a 3D soundscape for the audience. this is achieved through headphones provided to all patrons to wear throughout the show. I was a little sceptical about this, I have attended shows that utilised headphones before, but those were usually very small shows that catered to a personalised experience for each attendee. The headphones were comfortable enough, and played test sounds before the show to ensure everyone could hear the correct sounds. There are a variety of other options available to suit everyone’s hearing needs, but the provided binaural headphones worked well for me.

Stage and costume design are very understated for this show, putting a strong spotlight on the plot itself without distracting from it. The stage is a stark white, slightly raised platform in front of a perspex screened cut-out room in the back that is mostly dressed in black, but does occasionally change throughout the show. The perspex screen is a great choice, as even when actors turn their back to the audience, we can still see their faces reflected in the glass, not missing out on a second of their expressions.

The cast are wearing grey knitwear and black kilts, with only Lady Macbeth wearing bright white skirts and dresses throughout, juxtaposing her against every other character on stage. The intensity and passion of the performances are stunning, with Cush Jumbo and David Tennant fully embodying their characters with such dedication and depth of emotion I have not experienced in a production of Macbeth previously.

However, I don’t think the 3D soundscape is an enhancement for the production. The headphones do make every whisper, every laboured breath, audible and crystal clear in the audience’s ears, but they also put up a barrier between audience and performers. I did not feel like I was watching a life performance, the strong emotional connection just wasn’t there, it was more akin to watching a screening of a live performance in a cinema, or a recording of one at home. Especially in a theatre as intimate as the Donmar with its 251 seats, live theatre feels closer, deeper, more connected to the audience. The simple act of breaking this bond by sliding a pair of headphones between the spectators and the performers really took away from the feel of a live show for me. I did take the headphones off a few times throughout the show to see if I could catch that live spark, but some parts of the show are only audible through the soundscape.

Additionally, there is no way to change the noise levels individually, and as often is with sound productions, some parts of speech and whispering are barely perceptible, while moments of shouting and fighting are deafening in comparison. The sudden changes between quiet and loud feel uncomfortable and occasionally distressing.

The witches, which for some reason are named “wayward” women in this production, do not appear on stage, but are only present through whispered lines through the headphones, which is a great choice. It makes them feel like voices in Macbeth’s head rather than fully tangible creatures, raising the level of urgency and threat from the get-go. However, there are also noises of crows cawing and wings flapping from one side to the other, distracting from the performance more than adding to it.

Overall, I am not a fan of headphone technology in the theatre, it creates too much of a barrier to fully enjoying a live show for the experience that it is and feels over-produced and artificial, taking away massively from the personal closeness and depth of emotion a live show usually offers to its audience. Especially in a production that has such standout talent and impressive performances on stage, I felt it took away from that by over-engineering sound to a level that is best left to audio-only or on screen productions rather than the stage.

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