Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma, two of Britain’s most famous actors, are in a warehouse in Liverpool, sitting in the middle of a desert filled with charred trees, giant blackened chunks of rubble, and a burning car.
This immersive set was created for the pair’s new version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which eschews traditional theater in favor of a different venue.
In their mock war zone, it feels much different to the West End.
Audiences must endure a modern reimagining of Macbeth’s battlefield, which sets the mood before they take their seats in the makeshift auditorium.
“Hopefully [it] gives them a sense of the devastation of war – the devastation and chaos and chaos and horror,” explains Fiennes, who plays the lead.
As the simulated city destruction scene shows, this is a contemporary drama staging. Combat uniforms for the players are packed on a shelf outside the changing rooms at the Liverpool venue.
The depot was built in 2021 by the city council as a film and TV studio, but between now and Christmas, audiences of 900 people a night will watch Macbeth live here.
The production – burning cars and all – would then be moved to similar venues in Edinburgh, London and Washington DC.
Why do it in this warehouse place?
“As an audience member looking to watch a show, I love being taken out of my comfort zone,” Fiennes responded. “This is interesting to me.
“I think it’s the same feeling when audiences are provoked [and] encouraged to go outside the theater that they’re familiar with, or the theater events that they’re familiar with.”
Fiennes is one of England’s most famous Shakespearean actors, playing roles ranging from Romeo to Richard III. He is also known for appearing as Voldemort in Harry Potter and M in the last three James Bond films.
Now he faces the Bard’s power-hungry Scottish warriors.
Varma, who plays Lady Macbeth, is no stranger to cruel and cunning competition having played Ellaria Sand in Game of Thrones.
The actress also stars in the new Doctor Who series, the new Obi-Wan Kenobi on Disney+, the new Mission: Impossible film, and has won an Olivier Award for her stage work.
“Creating an event, I think, is very interesting,” he said. “Often, as an audience member, you go to the theater and you know what you want to see.
“There’s a sense of comfort and sitting back, maybe a little passive. But this is completely different.”
The show’s director, Simon Godwin, said they wanted to “rethink everything about the whole experience” of staging a play.
Macbeth’s message “can resonate more sharply and powerfully in an environment where audiences cannot sit in their comfortable, plush red chairs with their gin and tonics and ice creams,” he continued.
Some people may also feel uncomfortable walking through a recreated war zone, especially when we see depictions of the horrors of real war zones.
Godwin said: “Setting a play set in a contemporary war zone, as the war escalates around us, becomes very poignant, and also complicated, because people ask, do we do it set in Ukraine? Do we set our play in a contemporary war zone? The middle East?
“And the answer to those questions is, we don’t do that. We set it in a modern landscape that has inevitable references to the conflicts we all experience.”
That doesn’t mean the cast doesn’t take inspiration from current events and leaders.
When asked who she thought of when thinking about how to play the calculating and cruel Lady Macbeth, Varma replied: “It’s hard not to think of certain people, isn’t it? Political figures out there.”
Like? He would rather not say it. However, Fiennes isn’t too careful about who helps shape his Macbeth.
“The first thing I think we discussed as a group, and certainly personally, I would ask, who are today’s autocrats?
“Obviously there’s one in Russia, there’s another one in Turkey, there’s another one in Hungary, we have Bolsonaro in Brazil. So, there are people out there too.
“Donald Trump, I think, would love to be an autocrat if he could.