Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Rufus Norris
Reviewer: Jay Nuttall
Beginning its UK tour at The Lowry Theatre in Salford, The National Theatre’s touring production of Macbeth originally starred Rory Kinnear as the Scottish Lord and Anne-Marie Duff as his scheming wife, the production has been entirely recast as it takes to the road for a six-month tour.
The National Theatre’s Artistic Director, Rufus Norris, directs a macabre and, at times, gruesome telling of one of Shakespeare’s most performed plays. It is a strong and bold production that plays heavily on mood and atmosphere. That said, Norris ensures that the text is at the heart of the piece and spoken with clarity and precision.
Opening both acts Olivia Sweeney, Elizabeth Chan and Evelyn Roberts’ zombie-like witches whizz around Macbeth like electrons, protons and neutrons around an atom before camouflaging themselves at the top of trees by bounding up them like circus performers.
Rae Smith’s set is dominated by a half a bridge, disappearing into blackness, swinging across the stage like a pendulum. Characters appear and disappear from the ether as it becomes a gateway perhaps into otherworld or the supernatural, or even a visual depiction of Macbeth’s desire and ambition to cross over to royalty. Smith’s grey concrete design is reminiscent of post-war desolation, even comprising of grey machine gun bunkers. Macbeth’s quarters are grubby, distressed and abandoned office spaces and the dinner party scene at which Banquo appears comprises of trestle tables surrounded by orange plastic chairs. Added to this Paul Pyant’s touring lighting design means the stage is striking. Sharply focused lights keep this production darkly lit amidst solid shafts of light. There is a baseness and stark beauty to the design that certainly complements the themes of the play.
Norris certainly revels in the ghoulish. Only a few seconds into the play a bloody beheading is undertaken. Macbeth experiences a nightmarish vision involving reversed infant masks reminiscent of the heroin withdrawal scene in Trainspotting, and just before the slaughter of Lady Macduff one of the murderers calmly presents her with two shopping bags containing her butchered babes. The chilling moments are scored by Orlando Gough’s music which seems to howl from offstage throughout.
In the title roles, Michael Nardone and Kirsty Besterman are given ‘carte blanche’ by this production. Often with Macbeth, a director will impose an angle on their relationship and play with the dynamics of madness and vaulting ambition between the pair. Many of Nardone’s early soliloquies are delivered against a beating, unison-breathing tableau of actors almost frozen in time – giving a somewhat cinematic feel as he addresses us directly.
As an unfussy production Norris swiftly merges scene changes to great effect and allows the famous speeches no more room than they require among the rest of the play. In terms of accessibility this is useful in helping an audience, especially a younger audience studying the play at GCSE level, to see the whole jigsaw rather than individual pieces. However, at times, the rich complexities became a little too washed over.
As Macbeth emerges from Duncan’s bedchamber, his hands steeped in blood, it was difficult to appreciate the sheer titanic scale of the deed he had just committed. Similarly, Lady Macbeth’s “a little water cures us of this deed. How easy is it then?” seems a little too easy given the manifold nature of this line. And as Lady Macbeth descends into madness Macbeth’s order to the doctor to “cure her of that” can speak volumes about his own mental state at this point of the play. Yet, in this production, it is a blunt order rather than a window offering a glimmer into his psyche.
A strong and bold production that may chill the bones to watch, The National Theatre’s Macbeth is a plain and accessible straightforward approach to Shakespeare but lacks a little thrill and emotional richness.
Runs until 6 October 2018 | Image: Contributed