Macbeth at the National Theatre review ***

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Macbeth

National Theatre Olivier, 14th April 2018

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more

This was frustrating. No way of hiding it. It promised so much. A Macbeth. With Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff, both of whom, when furnished with optimal texts, directing and designs, are as good as it gets. Since we know the text cannot be at fault, though Macbeth productions do have a habit of disappointing, then we have to look to design and direction. It really pains me to say this, since I don’t think Rufus Norris’s stewardship of the NT is anything like as disappointing as some would have you believe, but here, as director, the ideas just don’t really work.

Most of the proper reviews have alighted on the cul de sac that is the design of Rae Smith. Now Ms Smith is a rare talent. I offer you St George and the Dragon, Girl From the North Country, This House, The Goat, or Who is Sylvia, and, of course, War Horse in support of that contention, and that’s just what I know. Here though we have a backdrop of black plastic sheeting strips, like an explosion in a bin bag factory, which seems a very tentative way to solve the challenge offered by the Olivier stage. A steep ramp initially takes centre stage though this gets shunted to one side for most of the proceedings leaving a pair of ramshackle sheds to do most of the visual heavy lifting. It is pretty dark, though with harsh accents, courtesy of James Farncombe’s lighting design, and Dunsinane here put me in mind of nothing more than a camp of homeless people under some arches. There are some poles on which the witches have some fun later on, and which provide a foil to some back to front, shrunken head shenanigans, but generally this is not an insightful concept.

Nothing wrong with the idea, just maybe not in Macbeth, for, as the critics have indicated, this foul is foul visual starting point gives little room for the plot to develop. What exactly is it that Macbeth and the Lady are prepared to commit murder for? Untrammelled ambition and the pursuit of power over this rabble hardly seems worth it. Macbeth is dark, for sure, and gloomy certainly worked for the benchmark RSC Nunn/McKellen/Dench production from 1976, with its minimalist circle. This left everything to our imagination: in this latest NT production we are steered too aggressively towards a composite post apocalyptic dystopia and never get out.

The hackneyed Jarmanesque vision extends to Moritz Junge’s costumes. Back in the day, when the Tourist was a devoted Bunnymen fan, and camouflage gear and ripped jeans were de rigeur, he dressed like this. The witches are properly bonkers, weird sisters indeed, but their aesthetic is similarly post-punkish. This means the supernatural world is firmly tethered to the “real” world, which may respect contemporary Jacobean reality, (remember James I was an “expert” on witchcraft), but doesn’t help when it comes to ratcheting up the atmospherics. The visual brutality smothers the action as well with plenty of stage blood and fake beheadings. Personally I don’t have a problem with the visceral approach to Shakespearean violence but think it is better employed against a more minimalist design or potboilers like Titus Andronicus.

Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself,
And falls on th’other

The design distractions marred Paul Arditti’s soundscapes and Orlando Gough’s composition. As with the lighting, in isolation, this might have worked, but taken together with the look of the production, it was all just a bit too much. This left the cast with just too much to do to draw us into Shakespeare’s sinewy text, so fraught with development and repetition. Every word counts with Macbeth, even more so than the other tragedies, if the couple’s psychological horrors are to be fully realised. There were occasions when the bleak poetry captivated. Rory Kinnear and, especially here, Anne-Marie Duff are both too good as actors not to convince in many key scenes; when they plot the murder, in the immediate aftermath (a real sense of panic here), the Lady’s sleepwalking madness, her “unsex me here” soliloquy, Macbeth realising he has misinterpreted the prophecy.

Yet other scenes are less compelling, Macbeth’s “tomorrow” soliloquy, Banquo’s ghost, (drunken zombie and Lidl barbecue is not a winning formula), and the shock-horror apparitions. Mr Kinnear once again lays on the blokish estuarine, which worked so well for Iago, but which here gets distracting. I think he is an actor who shrinks just a little when the production has flaws, his Macheath on this stage and, as good as he was, his K in the Young Vic Trial, both revealed hesitations. It felt like that here at times. It is a shame as I think that in another Macbeth, shorn of all this overtly macho militarism, RK and AMD’s ability to show the couple’s brittle dissolution could have worked. The religiosity of the text, the childlessness, the notion of “evil” the inability to act, all get lost here.

Patrick O’Kane offered up a Macduff who contains his grief on hearing of the murders, which worked well, and Amaka Okafor impressed as a dignified Lady Macduff. Stephen Boxer, as is his wont, was perhaps a little too fruity as Duncan in this grimy world. On the other hand he has the measure of the language in contrast to Kevin Harvey’s Banquo and Parth Thakerar’s Malcolm who both chomped a bit at their lines. Trevor Fox’s comic Porter had plenty of stage time, though I am not entirely sure what point was being made by this, his warnings on “equivocations” were lost, and his look bore an uncanny resemblance to Bruce Spence’s Gyro Captain from Mad Max, though this may been my unconscious reaction to the look of the play.

Mr Norris has made some cuts to the text, (notably for Malcolm and Macduff in England) excised Duncan’s other son Donalban, and asked his cast to err too much on the side of dramatic caution. In a production which prized the visual over the textural, Birnam Wood, the battle scenes, the apparitions, the witches truncated first appearance, all were underwhelming. A weird paradox indeed that a production that set out to impress the eye, in a played seeped in the supernatural, conjured so few memorable images to highlight text and action.

This may well work better in some of the smaller spaces which the production will tour at the end of this year and beginning of next. Macbeth is a play where proximity to the actors helps. That is maybe why the film versions, and I include the film of the 1976 RSC production, as well as the 2015 Justin Kurzel version, Polanski’s classic and Kurosawa’s Theatre of Blood, work so well: close-ups allow us to see deep inside the characters, in a way that this production, with this set in the Oliver space, could not emulate. The lo-fi design, redolent of theatres with much less money to play with, may come into its own. Despite my comments and the rather sharp reviews, this is still well worth seeing. It is Macbeth after all.

There is an essay in the programme which takes us through the many ways Macbeth has been adapted through the centuries. It references the classic Ninagawa production which shows that a robust, definitive vision can work for Macbeth (Ninagawa’s Macbeth at the Barbican Theatre review ****). But it also, just maybe in retropsect, reads as a bit of an apology.

Something wicked this way comes.

 

 

 

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