REVIEW: Macbeth, Leeds Playhouse, until March 19. Box office: 0113 213 7700 or leedsplayhouse.org.uk ****

Jessica Baglow’s Lady Macbeth and Tachia Newall’s newly crowned Macbeth in Amy Leach’s Macbeth at Leeds Playhouse . All pictures: Kirsten McTernan

ASSOCIATE director Amy Leach notches a hattrick of make-you-think-anew Shakespeare productions at Leeds Playhouse with her psychological thriller, Macbeth, after her modern Yorkshire industrial take on Romeo & Juliet in 2017 and Hamlet with Tessa Parr’s female Hamlet in 2019.

A huge drawbridge hangs heavy over Hayley Grindle’s stage. Searchlights scan the auditorium from metallic towers spread out like a forest. Fog spreads. Deafening noise bursts through the air. This could be the start of an arena rock concert, but then, look more closely. To one side is a puddle of water; the ground is muddy.

Then listen to the Witches’ opening words; re-shaped, re-ordered, with new rhythms, their sound as important as their meaning. What’s this? Macbeth (Tachia Newall) and Lady Macbeth (Jessica Baglow) are cradling a new-born baby, only for the bairn to die within a heartbeat.

In the Playhouse’s wish to “explore the damaging physical, spiritual and psychological effects of treachery on those who seek power at any cost”, Leach has grabbed the bull by the horns, putting child loss, lineage and legacy at the heart of the Macbeths’ behaviour, the acts of murder, the need to eliminate all threats to their ill-gotten power.

Miscarriage of justice: Jessica Baglow and Tachia Newall as childless couple Lady Macbeth and Macbeth

Leach then takes it even further, Baglow’s Lady Macbeth being pregnant when she says “unsex me here” and later suffering a miscarriage as blood seeps through her nightgown. Come the finale, Leach adds new text to give a foretaste of Banquo’s son, Fleance, becoming king as the Three Witches had prophesied.

Those Three Witches are typical of Leach and Leeds Playhouse artistic director James Brining’s “commitment to accessible and inclusive theatre-making”, as is the participation of the blind Benjamin Wilson as associate director and audio description consultant.

Among the witches, Karina Jones is visually impaired and Charlotte Arrowsmith is profoundly deaf, while Ashleigh Wilder identifies as “a queer, Black, neurodivergent non-binary person”. Interestingly, Shakespeare’s “weird sisters” are not weird, or alien, in the way they are often played, but are as wild as the landscape instead.

Arrowsmith also plays Lady MacDuff, partnered by the profoundly deaf Hull actor Adam Bassett as MacDuff. Tom Dawze’s Lennox vocally interprets the sign language, complementing the intensity of Bassett’s expressive face, hands and arms with the staccato rhythms of his speech.

Ashleigh Wilder, left, Karina Jones and Charlotte Arrowsmith’s wild Witches

Not only do lighting designer Chris Davey’s aforementioned searchlights induce a sense of paranoia, but there are relentlessly oppressive natural elements to the fore too, along with the sound and fury of machismo war. These are all big, muscular, mud-and-blood splattered men, except for Kammy Darweish’s surprisingly jovial King Duncan; their physicality being emphasised by Georgina Lamb’s movement direction. Likewise, Nicola T Chang’s sound design adds to the cacophony.

Macbeth’s vaulting ambition may in part be represented by the drawbridge, crowned when on top of it, but broken beneath it, but Leach’s production is deeply human amid the technology.

In the relationship of Newall’s reactionary Macbeth and Baglow’s more intuitive Lady Macbeth, the shifting sands become less about calculating mind games, controlled by her, more about brute physicality and brutal will, imposed by him, as intense love and mutual hopes are snuffed out in the face of ultimate destiny being beyond their control, whether shaped by supernatural witchcraft or the resurrection of natural order.

Newall’s Macbeth begins as the soldier’s soldier; his soliloquies remain the stuff of northern plain speaking, rather than poetic airs, amid the fevered actions of his bloody rise and fall.

Above all, Leach puts Lady Macbeth’s motives under the spotlight, and if purists feel she has gone too far in doing so, the reality is that Baglow’s performance is all the better, more rounded, for it.  Risk-taking change can be liberating, rather than be judged as taking liberties.

Review by Charles Hutchinson

Crowning gory: Tachia Newall’s Macbeth

Leeds Playhouse goes digital with A Christmas Carol after Tier 3 renewal rules out performances 3 days before opening

Chain reaction: Everal A. Walsh’s Jacob Marley will set Ebenezer Scrooge on his path to redemption in A Christmas Carol. Picture: Anthony Robling

BAH, Tier 3 Humbug. A Christmas Carol should have been opening at Leeds Playhouse tomorrow for a run until January 9, but then came the Government’s latest killjoy message for much of the north.

The Playhouse’s response is to go ahead anyway…but for five special online performances only, from December 21 to 23.

“Just as the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future try to instil in Scrooge some seasonal spirit, Leeds Playhouse remains committed to spreading much-needed festive cheer across the city and beyond this year, with ‘as live’ digital screenings of its sensational family show A Christmas Carol,” says the Playhouse statement.

“As Leeds remains in Tier 3, the Playhouse is sadly unable to welcome people into its Quarry Theatre to enjoy the production in person, but we remain determined that audiences will be able to experience the spirit, fun, music and magic of A Christmas Carol in the run-up to the big day.” 

Leeds Playhouse has worked with Pilot Theatre, resident company at York Theatre Royal, to film the production and share it for free with care homes, schools and hospitals in Leeds.

“It’s brilliant to be working in a new partnership with Leeds Playhouse on Playhouse At Home,” says Pilot Theatre artistic director Esther Richardson. “We know how disappointing it is for everyone this Christmas in Leeds not to be able to attend theatre performances, but if you access the show via your television, or the largest screen you have at home, it’s amazing how close our team are able to make you feel to the actors and the magic of this enduring Christmas story.” 

Dan Parr in Leeds Playhouse’s production of A Christmas Carol. Picture: Anthony Robling

Now, tickets are being made available to the wider public for online performances at 7pm on December 21, then 2pm and 7pm on December 22 and 23. Prices start at £10, but be warned, numbers are limited, so early booking is advised to avoid disappointment.

Charles Dickens’s winter evergreen can be enjoyed in the comfort and safety of homes – whether in Tier 3 across West Yorkshire or Tier 2 in York and North Yorkshire – in Huddersfield-born Deborah McAndrew’s adaptation, premiered at Hull Truck Theatre in December 2017, when directed by Amy Leach.

Now associate director at Leeds Playhouse, Leach is directing this season’s production too, wherein the spirits of theatre past, present and future emerge from ghost lights centre stage to share with miser Ebenezer Scrooge the true meaning of this festive time of year.

On Christmas Eve in Victorian Leeds, the cold-hearted Scrooge has not spread an ounce of festive cheer. As the cold night draws in, first Jacob Marley, then the ghostly spirits, take Scrooge on his frightening but enlightening magical journey, hoping to show him the error of his ways.

“Our vivid retelling of one of the best-loved stories in English literature was inspired by the evocative beauty and intrinsic hope of the ghost lights that continued to burn bright while theatres across the land were forced to go dark when the pandemic hit,” says Leach.

“Our aim now with Playhouse At Home is to share that same light and hope with people in their own homes, giving them the best seats in the house for a story infused with goodwill, festive spirit and optimism. What a way to kick off Christmas week!”

Playwright Deborah McAndrew

As part of the Playhouse’s on-going commitment to supporting the Leeds community, the Quarry Hill theatre is gifting a free screening to closed wards of Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, so patients can enjoy the on-stage magic even while they are in hospital over the festive period.

The offer is being extended to the Playhouse’s Burberry Inspire partner schools, residents in three care homes and to two day-service settings for adults with a learning disability.

Ticket holders who booked for cancelled shows will be sent the digital version for free. In addition, the Playhouse will bring A Christmas Carol to 1,000 NHS key workers and their families as part of the #LeedsSaysThanks scheme.

Playhouse artistic director James Brining says: “It feels more important than ever that we should honour our ongoing commitment to the wider Playhouse community in Leeds, the city region and beyond, giving our more vulnerable neighbours the chance to experience the life-enhancing joy of live theatre at Christmas in the comfort and safety of familiar surroundings.” 

Reflecting on “undoubtedly an incredibly challenging year”, Brining says: “With challenge comes innovation. We launched Playhouse Connect during lockdown to stay creatively engaged with more than 4,000 people across Leeds.

Jack Lord’s Ebenezer Scrooge, centre, has his measly meal interrupted by the nightcap-bothering Lladel Bryant in Leeds Playhouse’s A Christmas Carol. Picture: Anthony Robling

“This resulted in a collated series of dynamic online projects that we were able to successfully share with a much wider digital audience. We have also previously partnered with the National Theatre and Curve on lockdown screenings of Barber Shop Chronicles and  My Beautiful Laundrette.

“Playhouse At Home is the next logical step, giving us a vital outlet for the incredible work we are continuing to produce, and audiences an essential opportunity to experience inspiring and energising theatre at home.”

Jack Lord will play Ebenezer Scrooge; Stephen Collins and Nadia Nadarajah, Bob and Mrs Cratchit; Dan Parr, Young Scrooge and Fred; Tessa Parr, Christmas Past; Lladel Bryant, Dick Wilkins and Topper, and Everal A. Walsh, Marley and Fezziwig.

Lisa Howard, last seen in York in Park Bench Theatre’s late-summer premiere of Matt Aston’s lockdown play Every Time A Bell Rings in Rowntree Park, will take the roles of Christmas Present and Mrs Fezziwig.

Leach, who directed Oliver Twist at Leeds Playhouse in February, is joined in the creative team by designer Hayley Grindle; lighting designer Chris Davey; Leeds composer and music director John Biddle; Otley sound designer Ed Clarke; Leeds BSL consultant Adam Bassett; choreographer Lucy Cullingford; puppet designer Rachael Canning and puppet director Elisa De Grey.

The socially distanced Leeds Playhouse company in A Christmas Carol. Picture: Anthony Robling

Tickets (£10/£12/£150 can be booked at leedsplayhouse.org.uk or 0113 213 7700 with access for 48 hours from the ticket time. All performances include integrated British Sign Language (BSL), captioning and features creative audio description, courtesy of Hear The Picture.