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Macbeth – National Theatre

Macbeth, National Theatre

Back in 2016 the Royal Shakespeare Company celebrated the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth with the televised variety show Shakespeare Live. In a lacklustre event, the chance pairing of Anne-Marie Duff and Rory Kinnear performing a scene from Macbeth was a highlight, leading to calls for them to appear in a full-length version of the play. Almost two years later, those calls have been answered by the National Theatre whose new production is one of their most anticipated shows of the year. But despite its enduring popularity, Macbeth is a slippery beast requiring a clear vision for interpreting its complex balance of supernatural influences, human ambition and evil. Many more versions fail than succeed, so does that mean Macbeth is the most difficult Shakespeare play to stage well?

Macbeth is far more than an action-packed story of murder and mayhem, and is one of Shakespeare’s most psychological plays. The central character takes a convoluted path through the story that takes him from loyalty and fealty at the start of the play, through ambition and murder, to doubt, insecurity and even mental delusion that grow into monstrous tyranny. Then, increasingly numbed by the events he sets in motion, Macbeth’s inner drive collapses as he gives himself over to his inevitable doom. It is by no means a linear path, and like a perfect waltz, the perfect Macbeth must contain rise and fall that guides the audience through the muddles of his mind.

Motivation is key to unlocking the play, and understanding why the Macbeths are suddenly driven to murder will shape the entire production. But for the psychology to make sense, a Company must decide three things; first what role the supernatural have in shaping the play’s outcomes – is Macbeth entirely driven by the witches’ prophecy, does fate or destiny or paranormal force inevitability determine his actions regardless of his own agency? Second, what is the balance of power in the Macbeths marriage, does Lady Macbeth force her unwilling husband to murder his friend, is she merely reflecting Macbeth’s own mind back to him, or is there an equality of purpose between them?

Finally, what is Macbeth’s own motivation? Shakespeare has frequently examined the corruptive nature of power and this play is one of his most chilling examples of dark humanity. So is he destroyed by his own human frailty, driven to act by a strange encounter on the blasted heath that stokes a fire he cannot possibly control? Perhaps instead he’s just greedy, a mercenary friend and soldier who sees a chance for personal advancement and takes it remorselessly? Or, a final possibility, is Macbeth just evil, a force of devilry who enjoys destruction for its own sake?

Unfortunately, the National Theatre’s new production, directed by Rufus Norris, hasn’t obviously made any of these choices and after two hours and 45 minutes of watchable and decently paced performance, the audience has learned nothing about the characters or the world they live in. There is plenty of intellectual engagement with the text and plenty of stage technique that attempts to fill the Olivier space, but you never really understand what is driving the Macbeths or how their post-Civil War world fits around the bloody deed.

Rae Smith’s set design and Moritz Junge’s costumes create a puzzle that never satisfactorily resolves the hierarchical nature of the society referenced in the play. While it is a clear attempt to introduce a new style of location – and here read post-Civil War to mean post-apocalyptic – the rag tag group of people in ripped jeans, combat boots and kneepads never quite convince as a feudal society devoted to the weak leadership of King Duncan dressed like Quentin Crisp on hard times. The aesthetic is dystopia, all concrete rooms and giant curtains made of ripped bin bags, which makes the cast seem like a feral band of guerrillas and a few drug addicts than a nation at war with itself. There is no sense of wider armies clashing in the distance, and it becomes increasingly impossible to reconcile how this grubby and fractured scene supports a system of monarchy and aristocracy. What exactly is the concept of kingship or even destiny in this world of concrete bunkers? And why do the Macbeths even do it, what is there to inherit apart from a red suit (steeped in the blood required to steal a monarchy), that wouldn’t look out of place on John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, and seemingly no other trappings of majesty, not even a better castle.

Smith’s design is consistent and even visionary, but it doesn’t bring meaning or clarity to the play. Practically, the giant, and rather steep, ramp that doubles for hills may dominate the stage and ensure that those in the Olivier circle can see action take place on a level closer to their eyeline, but the actors seem a little unsteady on it and it just gets in the way. Similarly, the ramp and the head witch’s necklace are covered in broken bits of baby dolls and Action Man figures strung together whose meaning is unclear, and it wasn’t until well into the second Act that it became clear that the tall pipes with a cascade of shredded bin bags on top were trees.

Unfortunately, the design adds nothing to the story its telling and barely makes sense. While there’s clearly lots of intended symbolism here, it’s not at all obvious what this is saying about the play. It is a common problem with staging Shakespeare particularly where a pointless period setting is chosen in lieu of making proper choices about the production’s angle on the story. A similar problem affected the RSC’s Cymbeline in 2016 who chose a comparable dystopian design that added very little. Sadly, Smith and Norris have confused putting Macbeth in strange setting with having a “take” on the play – they’re not quite the same thing.

This inconsistency of purpose feeds through into the performances as well, and as impressive as Rory Kinnear usually is, he doesn’t get under the skin of Macbeth at all. On this same stage in 2015, his Iago was one of the finest we’ve seen, but Iago is really a politician in a flak jacket and while Kinnear brings that element to his Macbeth, of an oily predator waiting for a chance to strike, he struggles to convey the true aggression of a trained soldier and, initially at least, a beloved leader of men.

Kinnear has a cerebral connection with the lines, he understands them and delivers them with his usual crisp diction and cadence, but there’s no choice about the kind of Macbeth he wants to be, no sense of a man cruelly battered by fate or setting out on a winding and uncharted path to destruction. There’s no sense of inevitability to his action and while there is a hint early on that this Macbeth relishes the idea of murdering his friend long before he talks to his wife, there is no clear depiction of the anguish, guilt and growing delusion of a man haunted by his earlier actions.

Kinnear just doesn’t have a point of view on his character and as the play wears on it becomes increasingly difficult to believe in his actions. He is an accomplished actor, but there’s something about this role that doesn’t sit right, he’s just not finding the layers of complexity or danger that drive Macbeth to greater and greater extremes. It’s sad to say that you just don’t believe him, whether he’s clutching for invisible daggers or fighting to the death with McDuff, it doesn’t feel credible.

By contrast, Anne-Marie Duff’s restrained and nervy Lady Macbeth towers over the production, and while she’s given very little to work against, Duff brings a desperation to her from the start, clearly suggesting a woman who’s taken all she can and grasps a chance to escape the mire with tear-stained joy.

Her agitated state is a characteristic that Duff sews through the performance, and even when Lady Macbeth must act decisively to cover-up her husband’s mistakes, her moments of courage come from a place of fear rather than evil, which makes her descent into madness credible. There’s little sense of who they are as a couple and their tribulations prior to the start of the play, but Duff allows flickers of repulsion and determination to cross her face in the feast scene as the former connection between man and wife is irrevocably broken.

There are some notable performances from the surrounding cast, including Patrick O’Kane who finds a burning fire in his angry and vengeful McDuff, and while the final confrontation with Macbeth does look a bit like Phil and Grant Mitchell having a barney, O’Kane channels McDuff’s sense of outraged nationhood and personal grief effectively. Stephen Boxer’s Duncan adds gravitas to the early scenes, speaking the verse with a regality that suggests respect despite his inability to act as a military leader.

The interpretation of the witches makes each one slightly different as they shriek their predictions like eerie sirens, but while Beatrice Scirocchi, Anna-Maria Nabirye and Hannah Hutch perform well, their role in the story feels uncertain, and the production has little to say about the nature and influence of superstition on human behaviour.

Norris’s direction keeps the pace moving and utilises the Olivier revolve well to bleed events into one another. And, if you’ve never seen Macbeth before then you may not notice the absence of purpose, because it is a perfectly watchable interpretation that on the surface relays the events of the story with clarity in an unusual new setting. The trouble is Macbeth can be so much more than this.

When done well, it can be a shocking, spine-tingling story that fascinates and repels in equal measure, that can send you home chilled to the bone by its vision of human darkness and the cycle of despair it sets in motion. The spectre of Justin Kurzel’s 2015 movie looms large over this production and while film offers different challenges, it made strong and interesting choices that brought psychological clarity to the story in a fresh and exciting way. All of this was then fed through every aspect of the film unifying performance, costume, setting and music to deliver a Macbeth of raw power and intensity. Yet, so rarely does this transfer to the stage.

Despite the early announcement of a tour in the autumn, and with no time to rethink before tomorrow’s Press Night, this Macbeth is a huge missed opportunity, which, despite its impressive cast and considerable resource, has little to say. Here at the National, as with many other attempts, the production vision lacks real purpose and fails to engage with the complex motivation of Macbeth himself, leaving him and us nowhere to go.

Macbeth is at the National Theatre until 23 June, tickets start at £15 and Macbeth is part of the Friday Rush scheme. Macbeth will be broadcast via NT Live on 10 May, and a UK and Ireland tour will begin in September with a cast to be confirmed. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturacap1

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Film Review: Macbeth

macbeth

All. Hail. Macbeth. I’m not usually one for sweeping or grandiose statements but this new film version of Macbeth means I can feel a couple coming on. Here we go – this is the best Shakespeare film ever made and the best version of Macbeth I have ever seen on stage or screen. Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most incredible plays and over the years I’ve seen a number of professional and fringe productions, but somehow none of them has ever produced the kind of reaction I’d hoped for. The intensity of the story and how Shakespeare builds the sense of threat should feel devastating and I’ve longed to see a production that grabs you by the throat at the beginning before turning you out onto the London streets dazed and wrecked by what you’ve seen. I’ve been entertained, engaged and disappointed but never subsumed… until now.

There are three core questions that any production must ask itself – whatever choice the company makes is fine as long as they choose and are consistent about applying it. First, what is the role of the supernatural, are the witches real and does their prophecy pre-determine Macbeth’s future beyond his control or do they merely cement his own human agency? Second which of the Macbeths is driving events, is it him with support or does Lady Macbeth convince him to do something against his own will? Finally is Macbeth motivated by power and greed, does he commit countless murders because his human frailty cannot displease his wife or is he essentially evil? Many a production has failed by not making the decisions on day one, and what is so spectacular about Justin Kurzel’s new film is not just that they choose a clear path but it is beautifully realised and reinforced throughout the film.

In a recent interview Kurzel explained that Shakespeare on film often feels a little staid because they start with the beauty of the language and try to fit the rest of the action around it. But what works on stage can be stilted on screen. Instead Kurzel began with the characters, working with the cast to discover who they were, where they came from and what they wanted, so that the language and their speeches should evolve ‘organically’ from their personality. This approach gives a real power to the events depicted and at every point you feel you’re watching living, breathing people who feel entirely believable. The enormous tragedy of Macbeth becomes an immensely affecting disaster that you live with the characters so as the brutality increases to what is here both an epic and timeless conclusion, you’re completely bereft as the credits roll. Like I say, best Shakespeare film ever.

It uses two core themes that serve to explain not just the context in which the characters exist but also the psychology of their behaviour. It opens with the funeral of the Macbeths’ only son, a pagan-like festival, almost Viking in its feel that immediately places our protagonists in the midst of an intense grief. Throughout we see children playing in the fields outside, attending events with their fathers and in a nod to Henry V, fresh-faced teenagers fighting and dying in Macbeth’s army, for Macbeth’s cause. And there is a shocking moment involving children that will be familiar to Game of Thrones fans. Kurzel has taken a rather oblique reference to the death of the Macbeths’ child and brilliantly used that as the spearhead of their motivation. The fears about producing an heir, so commonplace in medieval and early-modern kingship, add heft to Macbeth’s actions in a futile attempt to defy the prophecy that Banquo’s sons, not his, will inherit the crown. Likewise, viewing Lady Macbeth as a grieving mother helps to explain her ambition for a better place, a woman expected amongst her rank to produce heirs, failing to do so and clawing at other entrapments – fascinating.

The second theme is the effects of warfare and the nature of living in a combatant society. What is so so brilliant about this film is the observation it makes about warfare, here depicted in a medieval setting, but so contemporary in its comment about the confusing effects of conflict on the individual, referencing both ideas of manly behaviour and expectation, as well as the emotional consequences of killing and seeing your comrades killed. In Michael Fassbender’s incredible performance we see that Macbeth’s reluctance to murder Duncan comes from this notion that killing on the battlefield for a noble purpose is one thing, but doing it in cold blood in peacetime for personal ends is quite another. Even better, his mind then fails to make a distinction between the two and begins to reel with a combined survivor’s and murderer’s guilt as the ghosts of the men he led to die, now fruitlessly, for Duncan’s cause, as well as those he destroyed for his own, haunt him.

The film is bookended by some of the most extraordinary fight scenes you’ll ever see. The first follows swiftly from the child’s funeral to put the grieving Macbeth in the thick of the action with the camera right in the heart of it all as men clash and flail. Then Macbeth is still as the battle rages around him in slow motion, and the 3 witches appear to him (with an added child witch to reinforce that theme), so the audience knows in that moment his fate is sealed. Amazingly Kurzel and his crew top this for the final confrontation between Macbeth and his aggressor Macduff, which neatly addresses the movement of Birnam Wood towards Dunsinane, and takes place against a landscape filled with orange smoke with flecks of ash pouring across the scene in the wind. It’s visually stunning and epic, a little reminiscent of Skyfall’s final set-piece as Bond rushed through the coloured haze of the moors to save M, and clearly implies a new era of battle depiction that can look simultaneously fierce and lyrically beautiful. The ending too poignantly reminds us that conflict is never over and as one King assumes the throne, another rises to take his place.

And so to the performances; I could gush for hours about how wonderful an actor Fassbender is and I can’t think of a single time he’s given anything less than a commanding performance. People have mixed feelings about films like The Counselor and Prometheus but Fassbender was still wonderful in them. His ability to entirely inhabit a character, to absolutely become them means he can give a performance of considerable depth whether he’s playing a suspect in Poirot, a comic book anti-hero in X-Men or as an emotionally cold sex-addict in Shame. And he is Macbeth and I mean he absolutely is Macbeth. It’s a tough role and unlike others the pitch of it must waver along with the story. He doesn’t start on a high and fall down, or start low and progress linearly, but alters throughout. Fassbender is so utterly magnificent in this role because the audience follows the twisted path with him, starting as a loyal warrior, before he is overcome with anxiety about the murder he commits in a moment of savagery but with tears in his eyes – a phenomenal depiction of conflicting emotion. After it’s done, rather than revelling in his new kingship, he is broken with guilt and fear, seeing ghosts and slumped on the floor of his new palace. Yet he rises again after the witches confirm no man born of woman can destroy him so his confidence soars, pushing his wife aside and, so certain of his destiny, committing tyrannous acts. The bubble finally bursts again in the final battle and realisation dawns on his face with the subtlest flicker as he succumbs to inevitability. All of this is in Fassbender’s electrifying performance and it’s astonishing to watch. The only thing that should be standing between him and an Oscar is possibly his other film, Steve Jobs.

Marion Cotillard is perfectly matched as Lady Macbeth, the arbiter of the plan in this version. There is something quite ethereal about her that sets her apart from the others. Partly it’s the semi-French accent (it was quite common for European royal houses to inter-marry) but her initial grief sets her apart from the other characters so we only see her properly interact with her husband and no one else, which gives weight to the nature of their conspiracy. The scenes between them pulsate with tension as they drive each other to act and Cotillard shrewdly shows her Lady Macbeth channelling her frustrated motherhood and pain into an act of regicide which eventually has devastating consequences for herself. The supporting cast is wonderful to; David Thewlis makes a brief appearance as a bounteous and likeable Duncan, while Paddy Considine’s Banquo silently reeks of disappointment and fear of his friend. Sean Harris arrives quite late on but makes a big impression as the pinched and vengeful Macduff.

Everything about this film has been so carefully thought through and the evidence of that comes across spectacularly on screen. Kurzel has created a completely compelling film that, as all good five star productions should, leaves you both in awe and utterly drained. It is so atmospheric and throbs with danger and tension all the way through – you cannot take your eyes off the screen. It is the production of Macbeth that I have waited for and if this cast could reconvene on a London stage anytime soon that would make this even more amazing. I cannot wait to see this again, in fact I’m off to find another screening now, who’s coming?

Macbeth is released in cinemas nationwide on Friday 2nd October. You should really really go! Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


2013 Cultural Review of the Year

At this time of the year schedules are filled with retrospectives, so what better time to look back and reflect on my favourite cultural activities of the last twelve months.  2013 was another great year for the arts in London, giving us huge diversity and the chance to see rare and intriguing events. There have been lows of course – the less said about Adore the better! – But hardly a weekend had gone by without at least one London outing. So, in reverse order, here are my top 10 cultural highlights of 2013:

10 – Miles Aldridge: I Only Want You to Love Me – Somerset House’s exhibition of beautiful prints by the Vogue photographer influenced by Hitchcock and film noir.

9 – Scenes from a Marriage – my first visit to St James’s theatre to see this emotional production of a crumbling marriage with great central performances from Olivia Williams and Mark Bazeley.

8 – Othello – the National Theatre at its best, transporting the action to a modern army base. Adrian Lester was on top form as Othello, but I was cheering for Rory Kinnear’s brilliantly malevolent Iago.

7 – Victoriana – the Guildhall’s quirky exhibition of Victorian inspired artwork included a hair cake and plenty of taxidermy. A great chance to see lesser known artists, enjoy a quiet gallery and squirm!

6 – L.S. Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life – my first blog post covered this great Tate Britain exhibition. Showing Lowry’s development as a painter building up to the wonderful industrial-scapes for which he’s most famous.

5 – London Film Festival – 3 of the events I saw at my first festival were great; a chance to see new work from around the world as well as influential classics. Parkland depicting the aftermath of the JFK assassination was a great thriller, whilst a superb performance from Dirk Bogarde unravelling a blackmail-plot in Victim, influenced the decriminalisation of homosexuality.

4 – Macbeth – Kenneth Branagh’s return to the stage was a triumph. Innovatively performed in a disused church in Manchester and emphasising the nature of evil, this was one of the theatrical highlights of the year.

3 – Lichtenstein – My favourite exhibition of 2013 at Tate Modern was the first retrospective in over 20 years. Seen before I started my blog, this was a fantastic showcase of Lichtenstein’s deceptively simple style – a print cannot prepare you for how affecting the paintings really are.

2 – Private Lives – so good I saw it twice, Anna Chancellor and Toby Stephens were fantastic as the sparring couple in my favourite Coward play. Great chemistry, and great set at the Gielgud, this may well rival the Alan Rickman and Lindsey Duncan version as a definitive production.

1 – Richard II – no surprises here! This RSC production was undoubtedly the best thing I’ve seen this year – and probably any other year too! Having waited for most of 2013 to see it, everything about this production was amazing and David Tennant was beyond spectacular as the ill-fated King.

Retrospectives can be a bit sad, especially if you missed these things. But never fear, as 2014 already has plenty of treats lined up – Sam Mendes King Lear with Simon Russell Beale opens at the National Theatre in January – all sold out until March (and I don’t have a ticket – boo!), but more seats are released in February, and failing that there’s an NT Live showing on 1st May; Blithe Spirit with Angela Lansbury comes to the Gielgud in March – having seen her eccentric novelist in Death on the Nile, this will be a perfect role for her;  A Streetcar Named Desire with Gillian Anderson is scheduled for the Young Vic in the Summer, whilst Greg Doran’s two Henry IV plays for the RSC and Barbican arrive in the autumn. In exhibitions we look forward to Constable at the V&A in September, David Bailey at the Portrait Gallery from February and Jean Paul Gaulthier at the Barbican from April. 2014 is looking pretty promising.


Macbeth – NT Live

It’s been more than a decade since Kenneth Branagh appeared in a Shakespearean role, and the entire run of Macbeth at the Manchester International Festival sold out in nine minutes. This is probably the theatrical event of the year, but one I expected to miss out on. Again, the National Theatre has come to my rescue with its season of live cinema screenings. Although I wasn’t prepared to go to Manchester, I did have to go to East Finchley. The Phoenix Cinema has a very nice art deco auditorium with seats that you can just about manage for 2 1/2 hours and by the time the NT Live preamble began, excitement and expectation were running high.

This play is all about evil. Set in a disused church, the atmosphere is dark, menacing and violent. It begins on a rainy battlefield with real mud, which as the play progresses begins to stain everything, representing Macbeth’s guilt. Actions normally occurring off-stage such as the opening battle and Duncan’s murder are shown, giving insights into his character – he is the protagonist but not the hero. Unlike Hamlet or Othello who are wronged by others, Macbeth cold-bloodedly murders his King and steals a throne he has no legitimate claim to because of the witches’ premonition. Unlike Hamlet, he doesn’t agonise about the legitimacy of what he’s told, but unquestioningly accepts it as his destiny.  As we cleverly see here, Macbeth looks into the trusting face of his friend and still murders him, a chilling moment and somehow a crucial insight into the man who becomes a tyrant. Branagh portrays this metamorphosis from loyal subject, to murderer and usurper brilliantly. You can see how clearly he understands the character, not looking to evoke sympathy from the audience but revealing in unsettling detail the conflict between his guilt and the depths of his ambition. His own demise, curiously, happens off stage, but doesn’t detract from a very special performance from Branagh.

Around him is more of a mixed bag. The setting works really well and helps to reinforce Macbeth’s irreligious actions, and most of the cast performances are excellent – John Shrapnel as Duncan, Jimmy Yuill as Banquo and particularly Ray Fearon as McDuff whose devastation at the murder of his family is heartbreaking. Not quite sure what happened with the witches and Lady Macbeth however. The witches are shrill and practically inaudible – it’s a wonder Macbeth heard their predictions because I certainly didn’t catch most of it! I’m not a fan of Alex Kingston and this performance did nothing to persuade me; she began slightly hysterical and lacked any convincing sense of the cunning or ambition necessary to support her husband in his crimes. As for the hand wringing scene, it was almost embarrassing to watch, full of strange mechanical movements – a bizarre decision.

Undoubtedly though, this is Branagh’s play and it will be remembered as a significant interpretation. Thanks to NT Live you can now see this and a number of other great productions at the cinema, without the high West End seat prices! The screening in East Finchley was a sell-out at 1.30pm on a Monday afternoon, with an average audience age of 70. Lots of people will want to see these so please NT, let’s have more cinemas and evening / weekend showings so we don’t have to take an afternoon off! Although, for this Macbeth, it was worth it!

For more information on NT Live forthcoming screenings including Macbeth, The Audience, Othello, Frankenstein and Coriolanus, visit their website.


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