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