Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Rufus Norris
Reviewer: Charlotte Broadbent
The National Theatre is taking its latest production of Macbeth around the country. The London run was met with mixed reviews and ran at a similar time to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production, which inevitably prompted comparisons. Rufus Norris’s offering is undeniably unique and the entire design team has constructed a vivid and bold world in which to show this enduring and powerful play.
The play is set “Now, after a civil war”. The vagueness of this allows the creative team to build exactly the world they envision. They are unbound by any preconceptions and have unlimited reign to compose whatever reality they desire. This is a very intelligent way to design a play that has feet so firmly planted in the brutally literal and the surreal. However, the vagueness of the setting means that the audience has little context to help them empathise with the drama.
We see from the tattered and grubby clothes and set that this war has ravaged Scotland, leaving even the army in mismatched uniforms. Duncan is in a red suit with matching shoes and coat which clearly denotes his status but looks gregarious next to the other costumes. Indeed, when Macbeth inherits this regal ensemble he looks more like a Halloween devil than a King. Similarly, when appointed to royalty Lady Macbeth loses her army fatigues and inherits a sequin gown. Incongruously glamorous next to the rest of the cast and still worn with her combat boots. Obviously, this costume change is to signify their ascent to royalty but the impracticality of the new garb renders their new looks rather foolish.
This aesthetic of bedraggled fabric is extended to the set which is strewn with swathes of fabric creating a captivating depth to the stage. A depth that is greatly highlighted by the presence of a raked gangway thrust from the back of the stage. It’s an impressive piece of design work from Rae Smith, which moves with ease to offer a range of playing spaces. The steep rake does make for some bold vantage points and helps create great distance on stage but can make for some ungainly walking which can appear somewhat inelegant at times.
The witches are a treasure chest of potential for any director and this production does not disappoint. Norris has the three women climbing Chinese poles and peering down at the scenes below. This gives them an animal quality and works brilliantly when they’re climbing. When on stage there is some beautiful work with their united movement and breath which bonds them. Another instance of this sense on ensemble comes in act one when Macbeth and Lady Macbeth speak privately the rest of the company move slowly as one, letting breath guide them. A stunning though all too brief moment from movement director Imogen Knight (Cydney Uffindell-Phillips for the tour).
Michael Nardone’s Macbeth has a cocksure swagger. He delivers many of the lines directly out to the audience, a well-considered choice as Macbeth is a character who is famously conspiratorial with the audience. This does mean that in certain moments his focus is sent straight out as opposed to towards fellow characters, which can subvert some of the relationships. Most notably in act one, scene seven when Lady Macbeth (Kirsty Besterman) powerfully beseeches Macbeth as he reconsiders the bloody deed. Besterman’s generous performance is undermined as Nardone stands with his back to her. Nardone does find a genuine tenderness when he finds Lady Macbeth in act five, scene five after committing suicide which is sincere without being saccharine. Rachel Sanders has stunning clarity as Ross, a breath of fresh air.
Original music from Marc Tritschler has some standout moments which evokes the Twin Peaks score by Angelo Badalamenti, calling into question how much we should trust the reality of our surroundings. Though, the occasional solo clarinet to highlight tension could be viewed as a rather dated motif.
This production has a lot of wonderful ideas and has clearly been tenderly considered, however they may not be enough of a foothold here to fully immerse yourself in the world of Macbeth. As this production has garnered such varied opinions, it’s arguably always worth seeing for yourself, but this production is occasionally style over substance.
Touring nationwide | Image: Contributed