Trevor Nunn's thrilling 1976 studio production featured Ian McKellen and Judi Dench as the murderous Macbeths.

Two dark-clad figures, a man with bloody hands and a woman with turban, seem anxious
Macbeth (Ian McKellen) and Lady Macbeth (Judi Dench) after Duncan's murder, 1976, The Other Place
Photo by Joe Cocks Studio Collection © Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Browse and license our images


“The RSC’s finest Shakespearean achievement since Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream….A Masterpiece.” Irving Wardle, The Times, 15 September 1977.

Trevor Nunn’s highly-acclaimed production opened at The Other Place on 9 September 1976. The following year, it transferred to the Gulbenkian Studio, Newcastle upon Tyne, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and then the Donmar Warehouse, London. Such was the demand for seats, that it was decided to transfer the production to the Young Vic, London, for a dedicated season from 4 April until 3 June 1978.


Thames Television also filmed the production from 7 to 12 March 1978, with Philip Casson directing and Trevor Nunn producing.


The production was popular with critics and audiences alike and the actors playing the Macbeths were especially praised. Ian McKellen received the 1976 Plays and Players London Theatre Critics’ Best Actor award, while Judi Dench won the 1977 SWET Best Actress in a Revival award.


The production's success owed much to designer John Napier's set, which consisted of a simple black circle painted on the floor, establishing a claustrophobic performance space. Props and upturned wooden boxes surrounded the circle and actors could watch the play from outside its circumference, coming into character only as they crossed the line.

Here is the blocking diagram in the prompt book for the transferred production at the Donmar Warehouse in 1977, showing the starting positions for the company outside the circle.


Before each performance, the company sat on the circle’s perimeter, emptying their minds, “then the weird sisters moan. For their magic there are no trap-doors, laser beams or stage trickery other than a thunder sheet. When you accept that actors can imagine themselves to be the people they play, then you can believe the witches’ spells, smell their cauldron, even see Banquo’s ghost.” Ian McKellen, Macbeth Programme, 1978, Young Vic.

Handwritten blocking diagram showing a circle and outside at intervals crosses with Macbeth character names
Blocking diagram of starting positions in Macbeth Prompt Book, Warehouse, 1977
Directed by Trevor Nunn © RSC Browse and license our images


The production was originally staged in The Other Place and the audience of under 200 sat on three sides of the acting space, two rows deep. They were so close to the actors that they could hear them whisper. Like the witches who prowled around the acting circle, the audience observed the prophesies unfold.

The actors adopted a naturalistic style and relied on the text to create the imagery. When the Macbeths were poised to murder Duncan, director Nunn placed several cast members around the auditorium and asked them to breathe heavily to create a gripping and terrifying atmosphere.


Napier's magic circle set emphasised the supernatural aspects of the play. His costumes were generally sombre, apart from Duncan and Macbeth's royal robes, so actors appeared to emerge from the darkness in an eerie manner.

In the galleries below you can see examples of John Napier's set design, prop diagrams and costumes worn by Ian McKellen and Judi Dench.


When Macbeth transferred to the Warehouse in London, Griffith Jones was playing Duncan but he was also Egeus in A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Aldwych Theatre. Sometimes both plays were on the same evening, so he played the first scene of Dream, then walked up the road to the Warehouse to be 'killed' as Duncan, then walked back to the Aldywch for the last scene of Dream.



The Other Place, 1976

John Bown - Lennox

Tim Brierley – Donalbain, Seyton

Judi Dench – Lady Macbeth

Susan Dury – Third Witch, Lady Macduff

Judith Harte – Second Witch, Gentlewoman

David Howey – Doctor, Old Man, Sergeant,

Griffith Jones - Duncan

Marie Kean – First Witch

Ian McDiarmid – Porter, Ross

Ian McKellen - Macbeth

Malcolm Milne – Young Macbeth

Bob Peck - Macduff

Duncan Preston - Angus

Roger Rees - Malcolm

Tony Valls - Fleance

John Woodvine – Banquo



Director - Trevor Nunn

Designer - John Napier

Lighting designer - Leo Leibovici

Music - Guy Woolfenden

Fight arranger - Peter Woodward


The RSC's archive is held at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. You can visit the Library and Archives there to look at production related information, including photos, videos of shows and stage management documents:

Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive homepage

You can search the RSC catalogue here: 

RSC performance database

You may also like