DramaReviewSouth West

Macbeth – Theatre Royal, Plymouth

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Rufus Norris

Reviewer: Joan Phillips

Raven-black and using the full depth of Theatre Royal Plymouth’s deep stage, designer Rae Smith’s cavernous, almost subterranean set, ominously establishes the doomed atmosphere that permeates throughout the National Theatre’s production of Macbeth.

A huge arched bridge descends sharply to the front of the stage at floor level, and ascending to the darkness backstage is the primary point of entry and departure from which the cast appear or exit into the mist or miserable gloom. Light barely punctures the upper canopy of this desperate scene, hazily filtering into the action so far below.

Suggestive of a post-apocalyptic world destroyed by war, the whole is more suggestive of the world of Mad Max than medieval Scotland. This includes Moritz Junge’s costume choices. Characters are dressed in worn-through, torn, badly repaired, quilted and leather layers, strapped to the soldiers with duct tape. Even the ruling classes look more like renegades or scavengers than returning heroes.

The story of Shakespeare’s Macbeth is well known and frequently staged and it is the approach each production takes that makes each new staging of interest. Rufus Norris’ adaptation abandons the medieval associations completely. Almost immediately we feel more like Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now encountering Colonel Kurtz’s renegade tribe, than if we are entering a triumphant court. Violence runs through the men’s talk and actions: the chest-beating greetings; the ‘hakka’ style chanting; and, not least, the gruesome beheading in the first few minutes of the evening.

Into this dystopian world we encounter the wierd sisters, here not presented as witches casting spells, but more futuristic seers from some fetid scene in a nightmarish science fiction movie. Backcombed, wild hair, grungy clothes, covered with mouldy plastic capes, they appear to creep out of the mist as if from under a pile of putrid council waste left waiting to be picked up. Even Macbeth’s castle is presented as a stained concrete bunker heavily streaked with mould and filth.

Into this world, where order has completely broken down, lies the fertile ground for the ruthless ambitions of the Macbeths to plan and enact their assassination. The decay of the set, reflecting the darkness in Macbeth’s mind and an ominous forewarning of the descent into anarchy ahead, is emphatically established here.

The touring cast led by Kirsty Besterman as Lady Macbeth and Michael Nardone as Macbeth admirably pick up on the ambitions and ruthless personalities inured by years of war to the violence they are about to undertake. The bleak sterile world they live through reflects the couple’s own senseless ambitions. With no descendants, their actions seem pointless, underlined by the Thane’s dreams of being surrounded by Duncan’s descendants. The nightmarishly original image in this production would fit easily into a David Lynch movie.

The couple’s descent into madness is well made but what doesn’t quite work is a compelling demonstration of the couple’s influence over each other, in particular, that of Lady M. It’s there in the text, but Lady M’s persuasive provocation of her husband to fulfill the murderous predictions just doesn’t seem demonstrated effectively enough here above their spoken words.

Runs until 20 October 2018 | Image: Contributed

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Medieval apocalypse

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The Southwest team is under the editorship of John McRoberts. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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