The Play that Murders Sleep: Shakespeare’s Macbeth at Trafalgar Studios


Jamie Lloyd’s magnificent cast ‘dare do all’ in this gripping dystopian rendition of Shakespeare’s Scottish Play.

It’s often a risk when an established Hollywood actor takes the lead in one of Shakespeare’s masterpieces – particularly in a highly publicised West End production. Yet for James McAvoy in Jamie Lloyd’s reworking of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the risk undoubtedly paid off.

This isn’t the first time that McAvoy’s played this starring role. In 2005 the BBC launched a series of modern takes on Shakespeare’s plays, with McAvoy playing ‘Joe Macbeth’, a talented young chef whose jealousy sparked his inevitable demise. Jamie Lloyd’s production is not only markedly different from this BBC adaptation, but stands worlds apart (quite literally) from any dramatization of Macbeth that I’ve seen.

The play inaugurates the ‘Trafalgar Transformed’ season at Trafalgar Studios in London, where the studio space has been renovated to launch a series of bold socio-political power plays, each under Lloyd’s direction. The season aims to transform the West End demographic by pulling in as many new theatre-goers as possible. Set in a dystopian wasteland, Lloyd’s Macbeth throws audiences into a futuristic and nightmarish world of disorder and psychological turmoil, confirming the timelessness of Shakespearean tragedy and making it the perfect play to capture new audiences.

McAvoy is riveting as the emotionally conflicted Macbeth. Fame has definitely not tainted the gritty raw talent of this self-effacing actor, who seems extremely at home in the intimate space of Trafalgar Studios. It’s a busy time for the Glaswegian, with Eran Creevy’s Welcome to the Punch already in cinemas and Danny Boyle’s Trance about to grace our screens. Yet watching him perform in Lloyd’s fantastical post-apocalyptic world, you would never guess that the actor had been juggling film promotion alongside performing six evenings a week. His unflinching delivery of Macbeth’s famous soliloquies is impressive, as is his ability to master both the physicality and psychology of the demanding role.

Photos by Johan Persson

Of course, McAvoy isn’t the only star of the show; Claire Foy also stuns as Lady Macbeth. Swapping her English accent for an earthy Scottish brogue, Foy gives a dynamic performance as of one of Shakespeare’s most renowned female leads. Having closely followed her TV career (Little Dorrit, The Promise, White Heat…) I was aware that diversity has never been a problem for Foy. This knowledge, however, did not prepare me for what I saw on stage. Foy offers a no holds barred portrayal of Lady Macbeth and her soliloquy towards the end of the first act is particularly arresting. The chemistry between McAvoy and Foy is equally enthralling, with the pair’s ambition mirroring their desperate desire for one another.

Among the rest of the cast, Jamie Ballard and Lisa Gardner give standout performances as Macduff and Seyton, respectively. Whilst Ballard poignantly captures the unimaginable pain of losing a wife and children, Gardner’s performance adds moments of refreshing comedy to this otherwise fiercely intense production.

The lighting and sound also contribute a lot to the play’s dramatic intensity, and the innovative use of the relatively small stage will surprise audiences on a number of occasions. (In one scene, the lighting also manages to highlight McAvoy’s long johns – no bad thing, I’m sure at least half the audience would agree).

My only bugbear was the theatre itself. The renovated space is too cramped in my opinion, quite literally forcing audiences to the edge of their seats. Having said this, the steeply raked seating does allow for an intimate performance, and I will happily admit that seating a third of the audience on stage in the midst of the drama is a stroke of genius. If it means Macbeth can engage with larger audiences, perhaps a little discomfort isn’t the worst thing in the world (although it does make you think twice about ordering snacks at the bar in the interval).

A unique display of Shakespearean tragedy, Lloyd’s Macbeth proves that this 17th-century drama can be imaginatively reworked whilst still retaining the rich language and timeless plots that Shakespeare is celebrated for. This visceral production really does ‘murder sleep’, leaving such a powerful impression on audiences that many will leave the transformed theatre still in the clutches of Lloyd’s dystopia.

Macbeth comes to the end of its run at Trafalgar Studios on the 27th of April. 

The majority of performances have now sold out, but £15 tickets for the remaining Monday performances will go on sale at 12pm on the 1st of April. For details visit:



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