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theatre review

Ian Lake and Krystin Pellerin have a sizzling chemistry onstage as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.David Hou

Opening the season at the Stratford Festival is the first truly satisfying large-scale Macbeth I've ever seen – taut, thrilling and, at times, terrifying.

It's artistic director Antoni Cimolino's biggest triumph to date in the Festival Theatre, a staging traditional only in setting, full of fresh faces and ideas.

Ian Lake, the 32-year-old actor playing the Scottish general who murders his way to the top, gives us a different type of performance than we're used to seeing at Stratford.

As a self-centred Macbeth, Lake is not afraid of being unlikable and does not try to reach out and win us over. Alone on the thrust stage, which has been transformed into a lichen-covered heath, he is trapped in his own increasingly mad mind – delivering his soliloquies not as rhetoric, poetry or asides to the audience, but as swift, stream-of-consciousness struggles within himself.

His Macbeth is not a deep thinker, but a quick one: Impetuous, he sees an opportunity and takes it without fully considering the consequences. Physically unassailable (his broadsword-and-shield battle scenes are ferocious), there's a bundle of insecurities behind his mask of arrogance – which is why he commits his first murder with only the smallest amount of emasculating needling from his wife.

"O, full of scorpions is my mind," Macbeth tells Krystin Pellerin's charismatically conniving Lady Macbeth (with whom Lake has sizzling chemistry) – and you believe he's describing an actual invasion rather than using a metaphor. In a pyretic and paranoid performance, Lake makes you picture that army of tiny arthropods crawling across his brain, pinching and stinging, foreshadowing the army of men that will eventually chop that head off and cure him of his ambitious affliction.

It's only when, having lost more than he ever won and Macbeth reaches "tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow," that he manages to clear his mind long enough to actually think. Lake lets the realization that he's a "poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more" hit him like a truck packed with ten tonnes of existential dread – and, for the first time, he sees the audience all around him, much too late to get any of us on his side.

What makes this Macbeth so engrossing, however, is that while the lead character may only think of himself, Cimolino's production does not. This is an ensemble piece about a world, rather than an individual man – something often lost in productions that centre on a star.

This show opens with a brutal battle, rather than the witches, showing us that the society we're in is bleeding from the get-go. When the current king, Duncan (Joseph Ziegler), is described in laudatory terms, it seems largely lip service; the ensemble's cheers and manly grunts around him appear forced – false faces and false hearts, already.

A furious pace is set that takes us all the way to Act IV, Scene I before intermission. Most productions break early around the banquet where Banquo's ghost appears, but Cimolino's has such propulsion that it zooms us to Macbeth's second visit to the witches.

The split is spectacularly smart. It crams all the supernatural stuff into a fever dream of a first half – then makes us feel the real-world consequences in a more sensitive, but no less action-packed second. We restart after the break with the scene at Macduff's home, anchored by a beautifully human performance by Sarah Afful as the lady of the house, staged in as pitiless a fashion as any massacre in Games of Thrones.

Macbeth's anti-hero is overtaken by Macduff as full-fledged hero – and, indeed, the title character is not seen again until five scenes after the break, fully transformed into villain.

No Macduff could be better than Michael Blake's, imperfect, unsure, but honest to the core – and skeptical of all the words everyone is throwing around. He cuts through all the macho malarkey of what has preceded when, after Malcolm implores him to be a man and fight, he heartbreakingly replies, "I must also feel it as a man." (Antoine Yared is subtly superb as king-in-waiting Malcolm, driving home the unsettling ambivalence of this Scotland in his main scene where he wonders if he may be no better than Macbeth.)

I've neglected the witches and the witchcraft, but really I'm saving the best for last. As the weird sisters themselves, Deidre Gillard-Rowlings, Lanise Antoine Shelley and Brigit Wilson aren't afraid to get gross – and, with the help of designer Julie Fox, sound designer Thomas Ryder Payne and movement director Heidi Strauss, they pull off their spells spectacularly. Cimolino's production has a lot of surprises up its sleeve, often involving the four children in the cast, that I'm not really eager to spoil. The banquet scene is particularly brilliant. I jumped.