NT Live: Macbeth – toil and trouble at the National Theatre

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Rufus Norris shouldn’t need telling, but: the Olivier Theatre is too big for Macbeth. If ever a Shakespeare play called for cloisters and corridors, it is the Scottish one; it literally thrives on confinement and the Olivier offers none. Working hard to tame the cavernous stage Rae Smith has designed a huge dissecting ramp to instil a sense of near and far, while putting to use the revolving stage (yawn) in the hope that shifts of space equate to shifts of mood. Neither work. And how can a play that burns on the sense of an invading unknown succeed when its production is staged sans roof? The breezeblock bunkers and crumbling hideaways do sometimes give a little intimacy, but nothing Smith does emulates the echoey environs of a medieval castle crucial for the development of malevolent paranoia infecting the play’s leads. It’s a tragic pairing unworthy of this tragedy.

Another lesson for Norris: change context with caution. Written in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot and James’s ascension – a Scottish king on an English throne – Macbeth always held the mantel of being Shakespeare’s most topical drama. Indeed, themes of government, nation and civil unrest will always be relevant, and the diverse audience filling the National attested to that. But his mise en scène, a tawdry mish-mash of Middle Eastern conflict, labours the natural topicality to the point of cringe-worthy exhortation. Yes, the duct-taped body armour adroitly captures the makeshift world of a Syrian rebel, and yes, the thumping EDM at Duncan’s victory party brings the 21st century to the Bard; but Palestinian keffiyehs slung about necks, and unscripted beheadings in the style of ISIS? The connotations are, at best, dubious, at worst, offensive. As so often with efforts to ‘update’ Shakespeare directors lack the stamina to see their vision through, and Norris is no exception. Happily – or not – around halfway the allusion fades, and the tragedy turns into a kind of Mad Max themed fancy dress party.

There are other criticisms, too: Stephen Boxer’s Duncan is eminently, and ironically, forgettable; Parth Thakerar’s Malcom has the backbone of a warm lettuce; and Patrick O’Kane’s Macduff appears chloroformed considering his muted response to news of his family’s slaughter. The less I say about the witches, the better. For the fiends who “lie like truth” and are the arbiters of all our worlds to be so diminutive and half-formed makes me think Norris forgot about them until a few nights before opening.

Applause goes to Kevin Harvey’s endearing Banquo, whose drunken lolloping as a ghost is genuinely haunting. Some applause to Rory Kinnear’s Macbeth. He convincingly oscillates between tyrant and hero, violently shaking his way between savagery and remorse. But this physicality, although affecting, detracts from the language – the language being, as ever, the saving grace. Kinnear must also deal with some sacrilegious direction: who thought dividing the defining “Tomorrow, and tomorrow” soliloquy in two was a good idea? Standing ovations go to Anne-Marie Duff and her decadent Lady M. Duff plays a sensual descent into the traumatised yet murderous anti-mother. She scintillates at every moment and we are forever thankful of her return to the action. Disturbingly, she does not fail to provoke our sympathy; I’ve never heard a more doleful “Out, damned spot!”

The critics will be out for Norris on this one, it’s only his second foray into Shakespearian drama and I can hardly imagine there’s a queue to fund his third. Perhaps the forthcoming tour will see different stages better hold this flailing production. But for now: no danger ergo no fear; full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

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