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.

 

 

 

Ninagawa’s Macbeth at the Barbican Theatre review ****

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Macbeth

Barbican Theatre, 8th October 2017

When I was a young’un, come to make my fortune in the Big Smoke, I was lucky enough to secure free or cut price tickets to productions at the Barbican and NT. But then, as now, I am afraid I was more “Dick” than “W(h)it”-tington, (how laboured was that), as I am pretty sure I passed on the opportunity to see the original version of this famous production of Macbeth at the NT because a) it was/is in Japanese and b) it was Shakespeare, which at that time I would only watch to impress others.

So it was a joy to see that this production, which has gone into the annals of theatrical history, was coming back to London, and that I could therefore atone for the sins of my younger self. The eponymous founder of the company, Yukio Ninagawa, unfortunately passed away last year, but his legacy is alive and kicking with the backing of producers HoriPro, Saitama Arts Foundation and the legendary Thelma Holt CBE.

So a packed house at the Barbican awaited a massive cast of 33, I think, actors with the proverbial bated breath (actually lively chatting but you know what I mean). Now I had expected a visual spectacle. I had expected dramatic, even melodramatic delivery. I had expected a massive soundscape. I had even expected a decent play (it’s Macbeth after all). But what I had not expected was such a surgical (no pun intended) delivery of the story. Nor had I expected such an adept translation, which was true to the key passages in the text and which highlighted the poetry of the repeated motifs and words (though there were a couple of inadvertently funny missteps). Chi, anyone? And I certainly had not expected to be sucked into the emotion of it all. In particular I reckon Keita Oishi’s Macduff was the best I have seen. Vengeance indeed.

Having said all of that it is how this Macbeth, re-imagined in a Samurai Japan, looks which remains the most extraordinary thing about it. The butsudan that frames the action. The ancient women who tearfully observe the action throughout. The cherry blossom, the traditional Japanese symbol of the ephemeral nature of life. The giant red sun which turns cold blue when Macduff finally biffs Macbeth. The bronze warrior statues when Macduff and Malcolm meet in England. The Samurai knights hollering in unison. The Kabuki witches – well played lads. The eight kings. Banquo’s ghost – you know he is coming but even so – OMG. The swooshing sword play. The Ninja assassins despatching Banquo and then, you bastards (!), Lady Macduff and the kids.

Now I do admit that a tiny part of me, call it a couple of per cent, couldn’t shake off the idea that is was a bit over the top. The make-up is caked on. The delivery is full on shouty declamatory. The music, with the Sanctus from Faure’s Requiem and Barber’s Adagio for Strings featuring heavily, doesn’t hold back – out damned minor keys, as it were. Masochika Ichimura as Macbeth and Yuko Tanaka as Lady Macbeth are giants of Japanese stage and screen but are no spring chickens. Yet in the scene ahead of the banquet, as they try to pull themselves together, they looked so vulnerable, and a lump came to my throat. I guess the point is that Ninagawa-san knew that Will S, through all the Jacobean flattery and the lecture on the perils of “vaulting” political ambition, still retained a deal of sympathy for the power-mad couple. The absence of the child is so keenly felt by this ageing pair. Anyway being sniffy about the melodrama, as some proper reviewers were, just seems discourteous to me.

So overall, whilst I wouldn’t want to give up on the stripped back Macbeths played out in Stygian gloom and occasional spotlights, I really, really enjoyed this operatic spectacle. Turns out that feudal Japan and Scotland are not so far apart. Sound and fury signified quite a lot as it happened.

I look forward to seeing another production from this marvellous company. I am an arse for not having seen any of their previous work.

Some forthcoming London theatre ideas

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So we have had a few new season announcements over the past few weeks so here is a wrap up of what I think looks interesting in terms of stuff coming up on various London stages.

To spare you crawling through all this guff here is my top ten, including the best of these recent new season announcements in my view, and some other incumbent recommendations.

  1. The Ferryman at the Gielgud Theatre. So I know the decent seats are exorbitantly priced and this has come in for a bit of “paddywackery” backlash but it is still a towering play and is a must see.
  2. Hamlet at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Ditto. This is just a brilliant Hamlet from Andrew Scott and must be seen whatever you view on Will S.
  3. Network at the National Theatre. Should be a cracker – more details below
  4. Macbeth at the Barbican. In Japanese (with surtitles) but this is a classic production which I am very excited about.
  5. I Am Rachel Corrie at the Young Vic. Erin Doherty in the lead in this revival.
  6. Gundog at the Royal Court Theatre. I have a feeling this will be good.
  7. Albion at the Almeida Theatre. The next hit from the Almeida?
  8. Young Marx at the Bridge Theatre. I have banged on about this before but all is in place for the Bridge’s first offer.
  9. Insignificance at the Arcola Theatre. Revival of Terry Johnson brainy classic.
  10. Poison at the Orange Tree Theatre. I think this will be another triumph of discovery at Paul Miller’s Orange Tree.

More detail below.

Young Vic

New season is up. Best of the bunch for me is a revival of I Am Rachel Corrie based on the eponymous activists diaries with Erin Doherty in the lead. I have said before that I think Ms Doherty will become a stage legend and this should support that idea. The Jungle also caught my eye, with a whole bunch of tip-top creatives weaving stories from the Calais refugee camp. This is the sort of thing the Young Vic excels at. I am also looking forward to Wings with Juliet Stevenson in the lead and the Suppliant Women.

Royal Court Theatre

A whole bunch of goodies in the new season with three takes on the impact of war, Minefield, Bad Roads and Goats, and a US transfer, Grimly Handsome which has already sold out. My money is on My Mum’s a Twat a debut play from Anoushka Warden which RC’s Artistic Director Vicky Featherstone is directing, Girls and Boys, a relationship drama from Dennis Kelly (who writes for the telly) and directed by Lyndsey Turner, and, sounding best of all, Gundog, which has a nice ring of folk horror about it in the blurb. As usual with the RC there is not much to go on but I have a very good feeling about this. Ms Featherstone also directing.

Almeida Theatre

The Almeida can’t put a foot wrong under Rupert Goold with Ink the latest hit (sold out at the Almeida but go see it in the West End Transfer – you won’t regret it). I am booked for all 3 of the new season productions.

Mr Goold himself will direct Albion, Mike Bartlett’s new play. This has “state of the nation” written all over it but Mr Bartlett is a terrific writer so no need to fear. His last outing Wild at the Hampstead was good if not outstanding but this seems to have all the ingredients including a rareish outing for Victoria Hamilton on stage (you will have seen her in numerous period dramas).

Also intriguing is the Twilight Zone a world premiere from Anne Washburn based on, you guessed it, the Twilight Zone TV series from the 60’s. Now I can’t pretend I was bowled over by Ms Washburn’s Mr Burns but you have to admit this sounds quite exciting especially as it will be directed by the reliably controversial opera director Richard Jones.

After all this excitement the last play in the new season is a bit more classical in Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke directed by Rebecca Frecknall (who has taken on this relative rarity before at the Southwark Playhouse) and with Patsy Ferran seemingly perfectly cast in the lead.

Donmar Warehouse

There are still a few tickets left for the new version of Ibsen’s Lady from the Sea and more for the Knives in Hens revival which should show director Yael Farber in her best light after the tricky Salome at the NT. Knives in Hens is a spare, poetic love triangle that gets regular revivals because, er, it is very, very good.

Old Vic 

Tickets now on sale for The Divide the new dystopian drama from the pen of Alan Ayckbourn. It is in two parts and I have no idea how it will pan out. It will be premiered at the Edinburgh Festival so probably worth waiting to see how it is received. It does have my favourite Erin Doherty (see My Name Is Rachel Corrie) above so I have already taken the plunge to get my favourite seats but I might have gone too early.

Arcola Theatre

A slew of interesting stuff in the new season including the Grimeborn opera offerings, but the standout plays for me look like the revivals of Terry Johnson’s Insignificance (his new play Prism is also coming up at the Hampstead Theatre) and Howard Barker’s Judith: A Parting from the Body with Catherine Cusack in the lead.

Orange Tree Theatre

Everything in the new season looks interesting to me including productions of Duncan Macmillan’s Every Brilliant Thing, Elinor Cook’s Out of Love and Brad Birch’s Black Mountain, but I think the UK premiere of Poison by Dutch writer Lot Vekermans may turn out to be the best of the bunch.

National Theatre

I am seeing Angels in America shortly (always seem to end up near the end of the run) so review will follow. Common is still trundling on – I didn’t think it was too bad but others were less forgiving (Common at the National Theatre review ***). No official reviews for Mosquitoes by Lucy Kirkwood which kicked off recently but I am looking forward to this immensely. Unfortunately the run is sold out so queueing on the day is the only way in.

Coming up are Follies, the Sondheim musical with Imelda Staunton belting out the tunes, Oslo, the sold out Broadway transfer which already has a West End transfer, St George and the Dragon, which I would take a punt on as a “modern folk tale” (expect Brexit allusions) written by Rory Mullarkey and directed by Lyndsey Turner, and Beginning, which I am guessing is a relationship drama (I assume with twists) written by David Eldridge and directed by the inestimable Polly Findlay.

My highest hopes are reserved for Network, based on the mid 70s Oscar winning film satire on the media, to be adapted by Lee Hall, directed by Ivo van Hove and with Bryan Cranston in the lead. Now film adaptions and Ivo van Hove disappointed on the last outing (Obsession at the Barbican – Obsession at the Barbican Theatre review ***) but I still would take the risk. This isn’t going to work if it follows the minimal, psychological insight route so I am assuming it will look more like Mr van Hove’s relentlessly busy Shakespearean efforts. There are tickets left for later in the run.

Barbican Theatres

Mr van Hove will also be bringing his Tonnelgroep Amsterdam team to the Barbican for After the Rehearsal/Persona and the main theatre will also show all the RSC Roman Shakespeares transferring from Stratford. I am signed up for the marathon Smile On Us Lord (I hope he/she does) from Russia’s Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre though I recognise this might be a bit hardcore for most. I do think the Ninagawa company’s Macbeth will be worth the £50 though. This is a revival was the production that first brought this innovative visual feast to the “West” so it really is a “once in a lifetime” theatrical experience.