Tag Archives: Macbeth

The Tragedy of Macbeth – Almeida Theatre Live Stream

The Tragedy of Macbeth - Almeida Theatre (by Marc Brenner)

With the return to live theatre and the excitement of season announcements running months ahead, the energy and enthusiasm for hybrid approaches has noticeably died down. Perhaps that is inevitable given the long period of closure, but it hasn’t disappeared completely, particularly among smaller venues whose limited physical capacity can be considerably expanded with live streaming of sold-out shows. And the model for this is something venues are quietly experimenting with, enhanced by the National Theatre’s recent announcement that its NT Live cinema screenings will resume in 2022. The question for theatres is how to find a judicious balance between in-person and other forms of content that valuably enhance its artistic programme and access requirements.

At present, venues are taking quite different approaches to providing online content. The Donmar recently recorded its Constellations series performed at the Vaudeville Theatre and is now offering them in a rentable ‘as live’ archive format, much as the National Theatre has done with its past production catalogue available via its subscription service National Theatre at Home. But these two organisations are also joining forces to bring Kit Harrington’s February turn in Henry V to a cinema audience in a mixed model approach.

Over at the Young Vic, there is a commitment to screening all of its big shows at some point during the run, offering a selection of dates once public performances have begun and looks to the NT Live approach of having in-person and online audiences simultaneously, something that requires careful organisation and camera placement to give both an equally weighted experience. The Old Vic managed this with its version of The Dumb Waiter, although future support for the In-Camera series, of which it was becoming quite adept, remains uncertain with no plans to broadcast future shows as yet.

The Almeida, however is taking an entirely different approach again, providing a Half Term week of online-only performances for its immersive and atmospheric but oversubscribed production of The Tragedy of Macbeth starring James McArdle and Saoirse Ronan. The theatre is relatively new to the live stream programme, but it made a sparking entrance into this new market place with its debut online production of Lolita Chakrabarti’s Hymn which was later fully staged once the venue reopened. And with this live-stream-focused Macbeth, it offers director Yael Farber a very different medium to present her three-hour show, giving the cast four nights to play to the camera rather than trying to divide their attention between the house and your house. The result is a focused piece with a cinematic flair that merges film and theatre forms to create a truly hybrid experience.

But let’s start with Macbeth and the production choices that the camera is attempting to capture; Farber’s interpretation is a representative version of Scotland with a simplified militaristic design that favours clean lines and plain, unpatterned fabrics. Although not announced in advance, the production seems designed with the cinema screen in mind, a feature of Farber’s decision-making generally in the creation of symbolic hinterland spaces where the focus can be on character and text. The blue and white colour scheme gives The Tragedy of Macbeth a noir quality without the melodrama that looks rich and shadowy on screen, especially when punctuated by stark white light, while retaining a warmth that draws out both the darkness and passion in the text. With water and plastic screens used to create self-reflective surfaces, there is a painterly visual language that is strong and deep, translating well through the camera by creating a captivating and claustrophobic space in which to situate the drama.

Crucial to the success of any Macbeth are the character choices the Company make which determine how the play should function. Here, the leading couple are driven by pure ambition and while the be-suited three witches plant the seed, the ensuing drama emerges, quite consistently from the couple’s actions and their unforeseen consequences. With characters on stage throughout (which would be more visible to the theatre audience as the close-up camera only captures them fleetingly), the Wyrd Sisters are used to focus our attention on the couple and crucial private moments where decisions are made and where the course of events is determined.

As Big Mama points out in Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, the marriage bed is the rocks of the relationship and what happens in it affects the unity of the couple. And so it proves here as Farber stages intimate scenes of conspiracy and the growing distance between the Macbeths in their bedroom. The Wyrd Sisters are seen to hold on to their bedsheets between scenes and are ritualistically tasked with making the bed before the couple use it. It is a clever piece of symbolism that aligns the unity of the couple with their own eventual destiny, and as Macbeth is increasingly absorbed into his own paranoia, the once physical and passionate relationship observed on his return from war becomes about two isolated people driven apart by their ambition as well as their differing responses to the crime, all emerging from and reflected in the state of their marriage bed.

Productions often struggle with Macbeth’s character trajectory which is wavering and uncertain throughout the play so unlike most Shakespearian villains, Macbeth is plagued with deep conscience and is not a character who announces his dastardly resolution at the start as Iago or Richard III do while inviting the audience to sit back and watch a malicious plan unfold. Instead, Macbeth uses his soliloquies to examine his own feelings of guilt that constantly attack his purpose, preventing a linear progression from soldier to murderer to tyrant-king. And this is something that Farber’s approach recognises, building in these moments of doubt and confusion as Macbeth moves through the story.

It is also notable how Shakespeare uses ghosts in this play to enhance those questions of culpability and regret. Justin Kurzel’s exemplary 2015 film took a PTSD angle showing a warrior already steeped in the blood of men who died under his command in battle who reappear to him throughout. Farber’s production doesn’t emphasis this but notes the value of Banquo’s ghost in determining Macbeth’s mental state and as a manifestation of his guilt that rapidly affects his sanity. And while the ghost-figure in Hamlet appears not to his murderer but to the avenger as a prompt to action, here, Farber reinforces the connection between conscience and Macbeth’s fluctuating development that constantly second-guesses itself, retreating and advancing in ways that add depth to the production.

So, McArdle’s protagonist travels well through these complex stages, bringing out the changing psychology of the character which suits the intimate proximity of Farber’s cameras which weave in and around the action, barely acknowledging the theatrical space in which it takes place. It takes the audience right into the emotional and mental experience of Macbeth. Lady Macbeth is the driving force – another clear decision – in the first part of the play, shaming her husband into action and questioning his manly resolution. Later, as the rewards of their horrific deed become tangible, McArdle opts for an instant plunge into madness that explores Macbeth’s fractured thinking while couching his subsequent tyranny in these terms, as a mind beyond reason.

Less successful is actually encouraging the audience to like or to care about Macbeth as an early antihero, and this interpretation though convincing in its presentation of the ambitious warrior driven to madness by his own lust for power and his failure to calculate the consequences of achieving it, doesn’t quite capture the comradely charisma that made Macbeth not only a beloved leader of men in battle but subsequently the obvious and entirely unchallenged choice for monarch following Malcolm’s flight into exile. There is something deeply alluring in the character of Macbeth, a man somehow not beyond redemption through his self-awareness, making him fascinating and enduringly appealing to actors and audiences centuries on.

This separates him from Claudius, Iago or Richard III who have a love-to-hate quality, but there is nothing of the soap opera villain about Macbeth and instead his very human failings give him some of the hero-protagonist characteristics of self-reflection, moral consciousness and even a linguistic dignity and gravitas that Shakespeare instils in his other leading characters that encourages the audience to contemplate aspects of their own behaviour. Despite an otherwise nuanced and thoughtful approach, McArdle’s Macbeth doesn’t quite reach that attractive leader of men quality and so the viewer is never fully on his side despite ourselves which makes a three hour performance hard to sustain.

There is also a lack of romantic chemistry between McArdle and Ronan that is quite exposed onscreen and, in fact, the performances are far stronger when the leads move apart in the second half of the production. Ronan, making her UK stage debut is clearly an accomplished film actor and brings some interesting depths to a slightly expanded role of Lady Macbeth that takes over occasional lines from other roles that reinforce the development of a character trumped by her own ambition. Ronan is too light ahead of Duncan’s murder, with insufficient grounding to talk of regicide in the same tone as planning a dinner party, but Ronan builds the character from there.

A very meaningful decision places her at the home of the Macduffs and forces her to witness a slaughter she has failed to prevent – much as Marion Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth is present at an equally brutal scene in Kurzel’s film. With little explanation in Shakespeare’s text for her madness, the slow detachment from her husband and her horrified reactions to his tyranny make perfect sense for her character and Ronan is excellent in presenting Lady Macbeth’s destruction as the consequence of unexpected and graphic violence emanating from her husband’s loss of control. Although the wife of a soldier in active wartime, Ronan makes clear the protected life she has led in comparison, with Duncan’s ruined corpse her first taste of the terrible acts that her husband is in theory far more used to ordering and seeing.

The onscreen experience gives the supporting roles plenty of space and there is greater clarity in the factions that spill out from Duncan’s murder with Malcolm and particularly Macduff given a solid purpose in trying to restore the balance in Scotland’s government. Emun Elliott s Macduff is particularly affecting, a once loyal friend turned bitter enemy. Showing the close and loving family playing together around the court and good friends with the central couple as well as the implication of a loving marriage with Akiya Henry’s Lady Macduff is well captured on camera and vital to explaining Macduff and Lady Macbeth’s development. And in a production in which male emotion is embraced, Elliott brings a visceral intensity to the scene where he learns of his family’s brutal demise that transcends the screen, displaying a considerable range and suggesting he might be well cast as Macbeth himself.

This approach to The Tragedy of Macbeth feels incredibly rich and, despite a slow start, once the first murder has taken place, the show builds considerable tension on screen. It’s not perfect but it is cinematic, and the Almeida’s decision to pause in-person performances for a week to produce this live stream has offered interesting possibilities in the staging and style that doesn’t need to find compromises that suit simultaneous presentation in two different forms. With live streaming potentially allowing more people to see the show internationally in one night than across the entire run, and the chance to rent it as an archive show subsequently, there may be different creative approaches to how hybrid theatre now operates in practice, but the model continues to evolve as venues find their feet.

The Tragedy of Macbeth was live streamed on 27-30 October and runs at the Almeida Theatre until 27 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Coriolanus and the Hero-Warrior – National Theatre at Home

Tom Hiddleston in Coriolanus (by Johan Persson)

Coriolanus is a strangely neglected and infrequently performed play, one without the speechifying and introspection that offer psychological insight into Shakespeare’s most popular protagonists. Yet, with its focus on the delusion of leadership, the importance of the mob and the brittle basis of populism, Coriolanus is truly a play for our times. A recent production starring Tom Bateman at the Sheffield Playhouse was truncated by the pandemic, so this is the perfect time to revisit the Donmar Warehouse’s extraordinary 2014 production showing this week via National Theatre at Home and starring Tom Hiddleston.

Six years on, this remains one of the most viscerally impressive productions of the last decade, a fascinating dissection of power, class and the enduring battle between military conquest and political protectionism that characterise Shakespeare’s Roman plays. Wars and conflicts occur across Shakespeare’s plays and, within the Histories especially, this involves many characters whose motivations and purpose in the story vary considerably as families, regions and nations contend for tangible forms of power.

In these plays, Shakespeare is particularly interested in the formation and decline of the warrior as an archetype, charting the dehumanisation process that rids the individual of personal weaknesses and emotion, transforming them into great and celebrated military leaders. The Henriad trilogy is the best example of this, following the reformation of Prince Hal from tavern-dwelling layabout to the principled and invincible monarch-conqueror. There are plenty of moments of hesitation, uncertainty and fragility along the way, but the steel that Henry V displays on the battlefield and in the rejection of his former companions denote the completion of his metamorphoses from fallible human prince to an idealised personification of glorious war.

Equally interesting is the post-war process in which the feted Hero-Warrior, unable to sustain their god-like form, must return to society – something Henry V escapes by dying unceremoniously in Shakespeare’s afterword. Now irreversibly changed or damaged by combat, the Hero-Warrior sets in motion a train of events that lead disastrously to their own destruction. Caius Martius who earns the moniker Coriolanus from his bloodthirsty endeavours takes this path through the play, the self-destruction of a hero unwilling to accept the confines of a society that built him and this becomes the major driver of Josie Rourke’s outstanding production.

Characteristics of the Hero-Warrior

Heroism is an intangible characteristic in many ways, requiring personality traits including decency, fairness, courage and bravery as well as deeds to demonstrate the hero’s prowess. There are several characters who begin one of Shakespeare’s plays already in the position of celebrated military hero – Coriolanus, Macbeth and Antony – all of whom return from garlanded battle with honours and political recognition, the discussion of which dominates the early section of these plays. Yet the very characteristic that made them also becomes their fatal flaw and pursuing it in peacetime takes them on a path to inevitable destruction and death.

In the Donmar’s Coriolanus, the audience is given a vivid picture of the protagonist’s battlefield strengths in an opening section where he descries the cowardice of his compatriots hiding in trenches rather than running into battle. He goes on to take the city of Corioli singlehanded, returning drenched in blood that runs into his eyes, covering his face and upper body entirely – a beautifully staged moment from Rourke and designer Lucy Osborne. Instantly we know that this is a man apart from others, one with superior fighting skills, incredible audacity and, crucially, an excess of bloodlust that make him part hero part madman.

What unfolds in the rest of the play suggests how fatally flawed this Hero-Warrior is, bred for the simplicity of soldiering, the life and death fundamentality of it all, and entirely unfitted for the grey, oleaginous world of politics. In Hiddleston’s remarkable performance, we see the effect of hubris and how clearly the very thing that made Coriolanus also breaks him – the love of his mother Volumnia. The intensity of their relationship, visible on his return to Rome is given physical form in the tenderness of the greeting between Hiddleston and Deborah Findlay, exceeding that for his wife and son. His reliance on her guidance is vital to understanding the path Coriolanus takes, his unyielding refusal to be other than what she made him even when the great prize of political office and power are offered. By the same extension, when he does finally succumb to her entreaties in the penultimate scene of this production and shows mercy to his former home, he places his mother above himself – it proves his undoing.

Shakespeare’s other Hero-Warriors experience a similar trajectory and while their motivation and downfall is conceived differently, both Macbeth and Antony suffer a rapid fall from grace, tumbling from invincible military hero supporting the dynastic sustenance of the state to its most pressing enemy. Macbeth’s ambitious belief in fate  becomes his fatal flaw which in the early part of the play summons his courage to take the Kingship he craves, while that self-same fate becomes a poisoned chalice as he tries to outmanoeuvre the destiny earmarked for him at the start of the play.

Antony, likewise, is in a solid position at the start of Antony and Cleopatra holding a third of the Roman Empire in his grasp while living with the woman he adores. Antony’s fatal flaw – lust – helps to build his powerbase before the play begins uniting two countries in mutual support, but as his strategic abilities are increasingly clouded by his attachment to Egypt, he foreshadows the series of military disasters that lead to his his military capitulation and death. All of these men experience the decline of the Hero-Warrior image during the course of the play, a status and easiness of mind held at the start which they will never know again.

The Military-Political Clash

One of the core themes of Coriolanus is the uneasy alliance between military action and the democratic process, an idea that recurs in Shakespeare’s Roman plays. States are reliant on the bravado of commanders to conquer territories and occupy land, but attempts to translate battlefield honours into consolidated political roles in peacetime society often in the role of Consul or Tribune, are treated with suspicion by the career politicians that pack the Senate. Julius Caesar is the best example of this as the predominantly civilian conspirators plot to destroy their overmighty colleague, the unspoken threat of the violence his legions could unleash on the city a driving force in his assassination and the recruitment of veteran Brutus to their cause.

In Coriolanus the sniping role of Tribunes Sicinia and Brutus played by Helen Schlesinger and Elliot Levy starkly exemplifies that division, adding a class angle between the rulers and the ruled as they both represent and manipulate the voice of the people, using political tactics to dispense with the military man they personal despise. The status of Hero-Warrior counts for remarkably little in the political arena, and Coriolanus struggles to accept the legitimacy of a government that requires the frequent sacrifice of his blood to protect it but not his person. And while the Hydra-like work of the Tribunes (a reference Shakespeare returns to throughout the play) makes them and their reasoning entirely unsympathetic, Coriolanus’s own disdain for democratic process and the people become equally problematic for him.

Dismissive of the facile rituals of political conduct, Hiddleston’s sneering warrior mocks the ceremony of installation into the Consular office, pulling at the robe and laurel crown and refusing to parade his war wounds in order to beg for ‘voices’. Encouraged by his mother to comply with conventions, Hiddleston shows the frustration of the solider forced to debase himself as he courts a popularity he believes should be his by right and contends with his own straightforward honesty (brutal though it is). The result is a bristling tension in this production as Coriolanus struggles to flatter the citizens he can barely hide his contempt for as the audience anticipates confrontation. Within the play there is a fundamental clash between the two mutually dependent arms of the state that find each other’s rituals and personnel distasteful, a conflict, Shakespeare suggests in the plays set later that is never entirely resolved.

A Hard-Edged Vulnerability

The early scenes of the play are full of machismo as battles are fought and the posturing of victory informs the audience’s image of Coriolanus as an unyielding and statuesque figure. Hiddleston’s entrance sets the tone entirely as he captures both the commanding figure and personal charisma of a solider whose exploits are widely admired.  It is a very physical performance, his posture set in rigid military bearing with shoulders back and head held high even when lurking at the back of the stage when’s he out of the scene, creating a fearsome impression, using his posture and surety of step to dominate the stage. There is real danger in Hiddleston’s Coriolanus, a no man’s land between rational, strategic thinking and a psychotic madness that erupts into violence as he fights the Volscian’s led by Hadley Fraser. The menace and physical strength Hiddleston exudes ideally situates the fears of the political class as his return to Rome provokes suspicion and jeopardy for the city.

And while it would be easy to play him as a blustering bully or maniac, what made Hiddleston’s performance so memorable is the thread of vulnerability that runs throughout his characterisation, generating a degree of compassion for the ill-fated general. It is an interpretation that gets between the lines of Shakespeare’s text and colours-in some of the emotional and psychological substance absent from a play with no great speeches or underlying lyricism – at least Macbeth and Antony had soliloquies in which they could unpack their minds to the viewer and themselves.

Hiddleston is a very subtle actor on stage, eschewing expansive expressions or gestures in favour of almost imperceptible flickers of feeling that provide a far richer and deeper experience, particularly well suited to the supposed impassivity of Coriolanus. The emotion exudes from within the character, registering largely in the actor’s eyes as they convey the effect of betrayal to the audience. We see a light die in him as the hurts and taunts dispel any ideas he may have had of his homecoming, while the painful process of dressing-up to beg for votes is clearly an embarrassing affront to the Hero-Warrior ego.

But it is the penultimate scene where these vulnerabilities are so movingly represented, broken down by his mother’s appeal for mercy, Hiddleston brings great clarity to the struggle within Coriolanus between the right tactical response to ensure his victory over Rome as well as ensuring the faith of his new-found comrades, and surrendering the advantage to guarantee the life of his own family. Coriolanus must choose between the two sides of himself, Caius Martius and Coriolanus, the soldier and the politician, knowing the latter ensures his own death, a dilemma that is full of agony in this meaningful performance.

The Donmar’s production of Coriolanus is one of the great NT Live recordings, capturing the intimacy of the space and the intensity of the production. The play may lack the grand tragedy of Macbeth or Antony and Cleopatra but this production makes a fine case for its value as a study of the declining Hero-Warrior and its relevance to our current political climate. The impasse between deluded politicians shoring up their own span of power and those who lack the temperament for government but can accomplish great deeds is the essence of Coriolanus – Shakespeare shows us it was ever thus.

Coriolanus is freely available on the National Theatre at Home Youtube channel until 12 June. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Macbeth: A Psychological Study

Macbeth - Harry Anton, Michael Fassbender and Jo Nesbo

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most frequently performed play and it is a story filled with death, danger and prophesy. With witches and military conquest, kingly intrigue, madness and betrayal, it speaks to us of the price of personal ambition and the consequences of power-play at the highest level of government. Consequently, its influence is widely felt across our culture, the ambiguous attraction of one of Shakespeare’s most brilliantly constructed antiheroes proves irresistible to so many. Yet, it is not an easy play to master, so intricately has the writer devised the psychological shape that more productions fail than succeed in creating the right (and believable) conditions for Macbeth’s crimes to flourish and die by his own hand.

Looking at successful adaptations of the play drawn from different media – a recent  theatre production, a film and a novelisation – as well as a high-profile production that failed, it is clear that the very best versions of the story exist in a complex psychological abyss. Giving due consideration to the various forces within the play and making them work in harmony is crucial to achieving a credible interpretation however different these may be.

The Play

Macbeth is a play that on the surface seems easy to understand, a regular favourite on the fringe especially (along with A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing), this dark tale of murder, revenge and retribution seems quite straightforward. Yet, there are three fundamental questions that govern the play and regardless of how an adaptation answers them or the era in which the story is reimagined, these questions must be tackled consistently to ensure that the psychological building blocks of the play properly stack together.

First, the role of the supernatural must be determined, is the story driven by prophesy and fate to an inevitable end or are the witches merely a symbolic manifestation of Macbeth’s (and our) desire to believe that random events have divine purpose? Second, what is the role of human agency in the play, does Macbeth use the witches’ forecast to solidify decisions he would have made anyway, controlling his own path to kingship or is he the puppet of destiny, and to what extent is he consciously aware of his freedom to act or his failure to maintain power over the events he seeks to control?

Finally, what is the nature of the relationship between the protagonist and his wife, is she merely another victim of Macbeth’s ‘vaulting ambition’ or is his enthrallment with her own lust for power the cause of so many deaths – this is particularly relevant when, consumed with paranoia, Macbeth strikes out on his own in the second half of the play, confining Lady Macbeth to the shadows. Regardless of whether the play is set in medieval Scotland, a dystopian future or the crime-riddled streets of Inverness by way of Norway, the answers to these questions are the key to unlocking the play and ensuring its successful transition to the stage.

The Theatre Adaptation

Last summer, Antic Disposition presented their nineteenth-century set version of Macbeth in Temple Church and in doing so created one of the best approaches to the play that London has seen in recent years. Directed by Ben Horslen and John Risebero and with a superb performance by Harry Anton in the title role, the production chose to make the effect of the supernatural fundamental to the story, manipulating and driving events at every turn by placing the witches as servants in the Palace where they could closely observe and shape the action. It proved a smart decision, one that in the eerie setting of the church created a chilling tone as the witches appeared at every death or key moment as silent but menacing symbols of fate, ever pleased with how precisely their interference in human affairs fulfilled their intention.

In answering the first question so decidedly, the result was to create inevitability in the story that affected the impact of human agency, shown here to be fruitless as characters retained merely the illusion of free thought. Anton’s mellifluous Macbeth was cruel and soldierly with no particular love for Duncan. The witches prophesy igniting a latent ambition in him which he gruesomely pursues believing he is fully in control. Likewise, the determination of this Macbeth answers question three as his wife is jettisoned, taking control of the plan to murder Duncan and, while encouraged by her, the balance of power lay clearly with the husband, making sense of his decision to act and suffer alone as the initial object is achieved with remarkable ease.

As Macbeth assumed the crown, Anton superbly conveyed the disorder of his mind where regret and paranoia contended, showing how clearly the events he set in motion spun rapidly beyond his control, demanding further bloodshed along with his surety of purpose as the throne came under attack. There was no human agency in Antic Disposition’s approach and, combined with the ever-visible presence of the witches, Macbeth’s struggle to hold on to the trappings of majesty against the tide of fate cost him his sanity and his life. There was a feeling of psychological completeness for the audience as strands of the play intertwined to become a brutal vision of unchecked masculinity that was partly influenced by a film from four years earlier.

The Film Adaptation

There are few versions of Macbeth that compare to Justin Kurzel’s electrifying 2015 film adaptation that transformed the play into an unrelenting two hour thriller. Its key achievement was to draw-out new emphasis from this well-worn story, examining the consequences of military action and the damaging effects of parental bereavement – the result is one of the most powerful and psychologically perfect treatments of Shakespeare’s play that you will find. This insightful approach used the basis of a warlike society and the demands of masculinity to set the parameters of the story, creating the conditions in which the already damaged Macbeth is convinced to kill his friend before being broken by the parade of battlefield ghosts that plague his mind relentlessly.

In this context, the introduction of the witches and their power becomes a reflection of his fractured personality that may or may not be a figment of his splintered mind, and while they haunt the action, Kurzel focuses on the notion of post-traumatic stress (for want of a period appropriate term) and grief for a lost child as the driving forces behind Macbeth’s actions – illuminated through the inclusion of an additional child witch and framed by the funeral of Macbeth’s heir which opens the story. What ensues is, then, the triumph of human agency emerging from the hearts and minds of a damaged couple exhausted by battle and the experience of continual loss, filling their emptiness with murderous enterprise.

There is a pain in denying the maternal that moves Lady Macbeth into a central role here as her sorrow curdles into desperation for progress. Marion Cotillard’s multi-layered performance emphasises the difficulty of being a noblewoman unable to provide a successor in a deeply feudal structure where her status would depend on childbearing unless queenship becomes an alternative, desirable and unchallengeable means of demanding respect. See also her painfully sad soliloquy that portends her madness as she returns to her former home to address the dead child. And Macbeth himself is entirely in her power, their relationship ignited by a sexual chemistry and mutual respect that is so fascinating.

The psychological consequences so carefully established in Kurzel’s vision are expertly played in Michael Fassbender’s astonishing Macbeth who contends so movingly with the scorpions afflicting his mind, a performance that fizzes and burns on the screen as the effects of his actions both before and after the witches’ intervention play out. Kurzel presents a fresh take, so steeped in brutality and danger that this became one of the most psychologically convincing adaptations of Shakespeare’s great anti-hero – something that writer Jo Nesbo also achieved with his own cruel and merciless recreation.

The Novel Adaptation

Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbo may seem a strange inclusion but his books instantly have an immersive and cinematic quality that made his 2018 novelisation a surprisingly successful rendering of the familiar story which he relocated to the Scandi-influenced world of the Inverness police force. An avowed fan of Shakespeare’s play, Nesbo has openly discussed the influence of Macbeth on his alcoholic detective Harry Hole, so when the chance came to reimagine the Scottish play, Nesbo seemed an appropriate choice. His version departs considerably from other stage and film approaches, offering a modern tale of corruption and power play bathed in a seedy film noir style. In taking very different decisions to the two examples discussed above, Nesbo’s 2018 novel may feel more radical, yet the psychological cohesion of the world he creates is every bit as compelling.

Making Macbeth an aspiring policeman prepared to kill his way to the top job creates different demands on the character and increases the breadth and nature of the interactions that keep him in power. The ambitious officer, by necessity, crosses paths with many powerful men including the Mayor, and while Macbeth kills his Duncan-equivalent early on, Nesbo deliberately holds him back from achieving a wider political power that must act as further motivation for him as he attempts to segue into full management of the city.

In this dark and shady version of Inverness, the great battle is not against other regions within Scotland but with a local, invisible and seemingly untouchable drug lord named Hecat, through which Nesbo poses quite a different interpretation of the supernatural. Fleshing-out Macbeth’s backstory as a reformed addict whose craving for “Brew” becomes a fatal flaw naturally establishes interactions with Hecat’s men who double for the witches. And while there is no actual magic involved, Macbeth still sets his mind and faith to the will of external forces he cannot control.

The page-turning quality of Nesbo’s writing instantly immerses the reader in the scenario he has created as you become increasingly engaged with his expansive realignment of the play including a valuable antagonistic history between MacDuff and Macbeth that colours-in some of the gaps in Shakespeare’s original while providing clear motivation for the other roles with illuminating care. There is no doubt that this is a story of human agency and while Macbeth’s casino-owning partner simply known as Lady is his equal with her own business to run, the protagonist actively pursues his own course (answering questions two and three), while the pull of addiction and lust for power are brought down upon him. It is a fantastic read, told with verve and invention, but it is the vivid complexity and detailed extent of the psychological profile that Nesbo created which makes this novel worthy of comparison with the examples above.

Getting it Wrong

When a version of Macbeth is done well it is gripping, but one duff note in the psychology will bring the whole thing crashing down, as sadly happened to the National Theatre in Rufus Norris’s 2018 attempt which forgot that translating something to a different period setting is no substitute for having a ‘take’ on the play in which its psychological construction becomes credible. Held in a dystopian future after some form of unexplained apocalyptic war – indicated by trees made from bin bags and a central ramp (hill) so steep the poor actors had to tread gingerly to avoid falling over – the court was reimagined as a ragtag group of rebels in concrete bunkers. But the wider implications were less convincingly thought through, materially impacting on the credibility of the play – what exactly was Macbeth killing for in a scenario where nothing existed, what system of aristocracy and government had survived and why did concepts of witchcraft remain?

Without being able to clearly delineate Macbeth’s world order with its fuzzy power structure and limits, this lessened the impact of cause and effect within the play so the production swiftly unraveled. There were witches running in exhausting circles around the stage but their manipulation of events was less certain, few of the incoherent production decisions held together cohesively and psychologically it fell apart. So, by the time Rory Kinnear started awkwardly swiping at the air and wondering if he could see a dagger, it was fatally flawed.

The Psychology of Macbeth

In this brief multimedia examination of the various recent forms Macbeth has taken, it is clear that the very best interpretations have tight control of the character context, creating believable and vivid hierarchies, confines and social structures in which Macbeth’s freedom to operate as a war hero, regicide and tyrant permits and informs his non-linear journey through the story. Whether his lust for power originates in a lack of love for the existing king, his own corrupted grief or mind-altering substances, his resultant actions are crucially bounded by decisions the creative team must make about the role of fate, human agency and the balance of power both within his marriage and the community around him. Build a credible scenario and a credible Macbeth can emerge. Get it right as Ben Horslen and John Risebero, Justin Kurzel and Jo Nesbo did and Macbeth is a blistering thrill-ride of self-destruction, get it wrong and you’re just swiping at imaginary daggers in the air. The psychology is all.

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Macbeth – Chichester Festival Theatre

 

Macbeth - Chichester Festival Theatre (by Manuel Harlan)

“Blood will have blood,” Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most atmospheric plays, charting the murderous tyranny of the Scottish warrior king who kills his predecessor for the crown and then seeks to secure his throne with further crimes. But in what is a relatively simple premise, productions often fail to fully reconcile the play’s competing drivers, the psychological complexity of the central character, the supernatural hand of fate that uses prophecy and magic to create an overarching inevitability, and the warlike state in which the uncontainable ambitions of men are given bloody reign. What productions of Macbeth fail to decide is just who or what is in control.

It has been a long time since a truly satisfactory Macbeth appeared in the West End while beyond at the capital’s fringe venues again and again the power of Shakespeare’s text is weakened by poor decision-making and an assumption that the story is far easier to stage than it really is – get it right and the play is a glorious howl of pain that will dazzle and electrify an audience with a complex world of violence and retribution they will never forget, get it wrong and the whole thing clangs like a discordant bell, as the National Theatre discovered with last year’s disastrous version starring Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff set in an inexplicable post-apocalyptic world of bin bag trees and concrete where only hierarchy had survived.

But suddenly the tide may be turning and good Macbeths are like buses, none for ages and then two come along at once. In late August, Antic Disposition brought their fantastic traverse production to Temple Church which smartly integrated the witches into the nineteenth-century household of the Macbeths as servants and messengers permanently shaping and controlling the action as Harry Anton’s wonderful Thane of Glamis crumbled under the weight of his murderous burden. And now, in Chichester, John Simm’s Macbeth directed by Paul Miller offers a more deterministic approach to the character that pulls away from the brute strength of the seasoned warrior to offer a cerebral and often sardonic take on Macbeth’s responsibility for his own actions while developing a partnership of malevolent and ambitious equals with co-star Dervla Kirwan as Lady Macbeth.

Staged in the hexagonal Chichester Festival Theatre, the action takes place on a glass stage raised above a permanently exposed circle of rocky landscape. Designed by Simon Daw, the set is at once the blasted heath upon which Macbeth first learns of his destiny from the Weird Sisters, remaining visible throughout as a reminder of the point at which his life was irreversibly set upon this path, and it also represents the rugged landscape of Scotland above and for which the characters endlessly contend, the audience reminded of the bigger prize at stake. But there are other interpretations for Daw’s choices; the scarred earth devoid of grass could also suggest the permanent battlefield, a state of national warfare against the invading Norwegian army that becomes a civil war for the crown of Scotland – the battlefield also being the place in which Macbeth forged his character and earned his first plaudits from King Duncan, ones that inspire his ruthless quest for greater advancement.

This earthy pit also becomes a burial ground for several characters, if not all consistently, the glass stage parting to receive the bodies of Macduff’s son (a little awkwardly) and of Banquo, a nod to the shadow of inevitable death that hangs over the play, as well as the pile of bodies that Macbeth’s conscience accrues from the soldiers who die in the opening battle to the final murders that announce the play’s end game. But there is one more possibility that presents itself and Daw’s covered pit may also represent the way in which we fetishize and misuse history to suit our current political and social purpose.

Historians have long debated the practice of placing everyday objects from the past behind glass screens in museums, investing them with a reverence they never held during their period of use. Thus, the glass platform above the landscape may imply the ways in which Macbeth actively misapplies his own history and experience as a successful military leader to facilitate his role as King and dictator. There are strong notions of power and it corrupting influence which run throughout the production, showcasing how a lack of legitimacy needs to be circumvented, so the preservation of the blasted health / battlefield / earth of Scotland behind this glass screen speaks to Macbeth’s own misguided preservation of purpose that determines his behaviour and shores-up his despotic regime.

There is, for the most part, a fascinating intensity to Miller’s production, moodily lit by Mark Doubleday to create an eerie and intimidating world of dark deeds. The first half runs up until the death of Banquo and has a real momentum as events accelerate quickly to place Macbeth on the throne with plots and conversations taking place in shadowy corners and half-lit portions of the stage that well exude the gloomy oppression of the Macbeths’ castle. Particularly striking is the scene immediately after Duncan’s murder in which the blood-soaked figures of Macbeth and his wife are thrown into elemental relief by two well-position spotlights that cross the stage, simultaneously bathing them in light and darkness like other worldly beings. Just before the interval, Miller and the creative team create the feeling that everything is now in place, and Macbeth’s ascendancy is guaranteed.

If the second half of this production doesn’t quite fulfill the promise of the first it is by no means a reflection on the interpretation of the central characters whose interaction and stage presence is gripping throughout. For part two it is really a question of tone and two crucial decisions that interrupt the flow of the action. First, arguably, the interval comes at the wrong point and while the second half opens with a strong version of the Banquet scene, a longer piece of contextual exposition between two interchangeable soldiers drains the tension and could have been cut to make way for the fiery witches cauldron that follows. Bathed in red light and using Tim Reid’s psycho-horror video design (that looks better in the photos than it does on stage) this would have been a stronger opener, as well as a chance to mirror the focus on the witches at the start of Act One.

The second fateful decision is to play the tediously long scene between Malcolm and Macduff in full which switches the focus from the more engaging intrigues of Macbeth’s psychological decline to a sunny day somewhere else. Running for more than 10-minutes but feeling longer and weakly performed, it is a scene that adds very little to the play except for textural purists. Partly it is too focused on a character no one cares much about regardless of the production, but also creates an unnecessary “light” break in the carefully constructed tension of the preceding hours. Miller has worked hard, has earned our undivided attention and this scene pulls us out of the much more interesting perspective of Macbeth while we wait for key information to be delivered to Macduff. The airy birdsong and spring-like feel are a confusing distraction in a show that has otherwise focused on the ambition of one man and the horror his action perpetuates. Both these choices temporarily derail the action in what could have been a slightly tighter production.

Nonetheless, John Simm has seized the opportunity to make the character his own, using his own ability to play dark humour to bring a different angle to the performance. His Macbeth makes perfect psychological sense – a rare achievement in a difficult character to pitch – ensuring that his relationship with Duncan is less ingratiating than often seen and frustrated by his decision to make Malcolm his heir. Just as Christopher Ravenscroft’s softly spoken Duncan starts to announce his decision, Simm subtly shifts his weight as though about to step forward to claim his rightful place, only to be stunned to hear a lesser rival’s name. It is this outrageous dismissal that goads his Macbeth to consider murder, an arrogant certainty that carries him through the rest of the play.

Simm may not be a brutal thug who could tear a man to pieces, but his Macbeth is a dangerous figure – an understanding of quiet menace that Simm brings from his Pinter successes – so certain of his destiny, of a right to rule and his invincibility that after he is crowned his personality awkwardly changes towards old friend Banquo, a paranoid suspicion creeping into the performance that sours their affection for one another. Equally, Simm’s Macbeth refuses help from his co-conspirator, ejecting his wife to make gruesome decisions without further consultation. There is no question that this Macbeth knows his own mind and follows it relentlessly, full of his own agency that leaves him notably alone as the rebels surround the castle, a deluded, isolated figure on an empty stage clinging calmly to his certainty that he will prevail.

And Simm brings real clarity to Shakespeare’s verse, not only delivering the lines with a feel for everyday conversation but with a true understanding of every image and classical allusion. The soliloquies are delivered with confidence and while this is not a Macbeth whose mind is wrenched to pieces by his crime, Simm uses them like Hamlet to explore the conflicting emotions that chart Macbeth’s fluctuating journey through his own ability to order and control his thoughts, bringing small touches of gallows humour to draw out different dimensions in the role.

Dervla Kirwan as Lady Macbeth is every bit as good, developing an early partnership with Simm that suggests a marriage of true equality in the early part of the play as they both embark on their joint endeavour. Kirwan is a tower of strength to her husband, helping him to overcome his doubts when his resolve crumbles, confident that the opportunity is perfectly within their grasp if they stick to her plan. She’s not an evil Lady Macbeth but a very smart one, speaking in hushed tones as she urges her husband to the action she knows is right, while later assuming the magisterial dignity her husband lacks when she struggles to shield her guests from the effect of Macbeth’s visions.

Kirwan’s performance is the rock around which the rest of the production is anchored, stately and calm, the character’s determination which Kirwan evokes creates this balance in Lady Macbeth’s marriage that lasts until the point of Duncan’s death, making her husband’s decision to cast her aside so shocking. The sense of complete partnership between them broken by his decisive isolation, and as Shakespeare takes great leaps with the character off stage, Kirwan conveys Lady Macbeth’s own descent into madness with sympathy and credibility.

Among the surrounding cast, Stuart Laing’s Banquo impresses as Macbeth’s warrior comrade, divided by the witches prophesy that generates jealousy and fear between old friends, while Michael Balogun as Macduff conveys his own fury well, although the final confrontation between the antagonists is strangely short and underwhelming. Some of the secondary characters however are less clear, often more a distraction from the central storyline than helping to stoke the unfolding drama.

Is there a West End transfer in here -potentially. This two hour and 50-minute production does need a trim and the tone has to refocus more consistently on the driving intensity of Macbeth’s jagged purpose, but Dew’s multi-interpretative set-design has much to say about the various underlying themes of the play and has true purpose in the context of the action. It has been a long time since the West End saw a truly great Macbeth so perhaps this is a chance for Simm and Kirwan to buck the trend with impressive performances that offer a different perspective on their characters while creating a potency in their exchanges that is never less than compelling.

Macbeth is at the Chichester Festival Theatre until 26 October with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   


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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