Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Rufus Norris
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
If there was such a thing as a National Theatre acting company any more, Rory Kinnear would be at its head through longevity, if nothing else. Macbeth marks his tenth leading role for the South Bank venue. His costar, Anne-Marie Duff, is not far behind, on her ninth. So for this production – the first time artistic director Rufus Norris has directed Shakespeare for 25 years – there is a sense of an acting safety net in place.
There is a sense, too, that Macbeth has an element of safety in it for the returning director. Easily one of Shakespeare’s most quotable plays, it provides lots of recognisable story beats that can allow even the most pedestrian of productions to flow.
But that predictability also encourages the canny director to push in bold directions if they so desire. On the cavernous Olivier stage, it is also necessary to allow the play’s smaller moments – which, despite its talk of battle and of armies moving like a forest, form the majority of the play – to not get subsumed by scale.
To allow for that switch of scale from blasted heath to bedchamber, designer Rae Smith relies on a moving ramp, giving the Olivier amphitheatre its own mountainous moor in wood. Elsewhere the aesthetic is post-apocalyptic grunge: drapes have the texture of fossilised bin liners, while the Macbeths’ Dunsinane castle – the room of it we initially see, at least – is all neglected concrete brutalism, as if the National’s architect Denys Lasdun’s work had been left to rot through decades of Highland storms.
For the first half of Act I, this aesthetic has a cohesion to it that stutters slightly as Duncan’s royal entourage descends. To convey the sense of more rooms, Smith brings in modular walls that remind one of the same scheme in the National’s wonder.land, which she also designed. In Act II, as the action switches to the Macduff castle and to the exiles in England, action plays before a curtain in a rather stolid staging.
Rather stronger, both visually and aurally, are the play’s supernatural elements. As Macbeth and Banquo first encounter the three witches, Paul Arditti’s haunting sound designs suggest the heath is full of magical creatures and they have met just one small sliver. As the play progresses, other directors choose to have the witches overseeing Macbeth’s descent into an ever-desperate attempt to retain his crown; here, that role is taken by Kevin Harvey’s Banquo and, to a lesser extent Stephen Boxer’s Duncan.
The impression that Banquo’s ghost never really disappears following the famous banquet scene lends a heft to Kinnear’s second act performance. And although Kinnear delivers each of his character’s soliloquies effortlessly, there is less of a sense that one is watching anything thrilling.
The same could not be said for Duff’s Lady Macbeth. In her hands, a character which is better known as an ambitious, scheming harlot is a more complex woman: while she and Macbeth are co-conspirators in the assassination of Duncan, her subsequent actions concentrate solely on making sure their treachery is not uncovered. There is a sense, too, that all is not well in the House of Glamis: lines conveying a sense of patriarchal superiority (such as, “Bring forth male children only!”) produce an instinctive flinch of disgust that go unnoticed by her preoccupied husband. It is in such flourishes, small enough to be believable yet large enough to play well within the Olivier stage, that Duff comes to dominate.
It is also in such performances that one comes to appreciate that Norris’s return to Shakespeare has been successful. Even the porter (Trevor Fox) – traditionally the most cringe-inducing comedy turn in an otherwise humourless play – is elevated here. Norris ensures that the character understands his masters’ murderous actions, in an instant turning the repetitive monologue about the effects on alcohol on libido into a wily delaying tactic, ensuring that the Macbeths have time to cover up their crime.
And it’s in scene readings such as those that helps a good Shakespeare production teeter into greatness.
Continues until 23 June 2018 | Image: Brinkhoff + Mögenburg