Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Macbeth – dystopian staging of The Scottish Play with a dialled-back Lady Macbeth (National Theatre at Grand Opera House until 9 March)

From the moment the National Theatre performance of Macbeth starts, it’s clear that they’ll make good use of the height of the theatre space. A curved road – perhaps a bridge or a gangway – rises into the gloom at the back of the stage, and characters appear out of nowhere. Later entire rooms of furniture will silently appear and disappear on stage. The mixed-gender witches scuttle about and shimmy up poles, wailing like banshees in their elevated perches in the trees that look like upturned mops.

Shakespeare was not disciplined about the size of his cast so there are a lot of characters to sift through to figure out who is who. Duncan is obvious, resplendent in a bright red suit, cape and matching swede shoes that Macbeth will later inherit. Set in modern times after a civil war – possibly in the middle of a Mad Max film, maybe this is what Scotland is supposed to look like post-independence? – cargo pants and combat gear are the norm for most of the other characters, though Duncan’s camp son Malcom wanders around in welly boots in contrast to the more military attire.

Kirsty Besterman’s Lady Macbeth is lean and mean, with fiery hair and skinny jeans, reminiscent of the most recent athletic portrayal of Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft by Alicia Vikander. She has an assured sense of the next steps to take while Macbeth (Michael Nardone) is infatuated but initially strategically wobbly. Lady Macbeth’s hunger for power is never really dialled up. So when Nardone gets his shoulders back, by the time he becomes King of Scotland after a spot of regicide, he’s definitely in command, though completely out of control with visions of Banquo (Patrick Robinson) upsetting him and the castle crockery.

Rae Smith’s set is simple yet sophisticated. The road glides effortlessly from side to side, creating new vistas and swallowing up props left in its path like a giant vacuum cleaner. Chateau Macbeth is a reinforced concrete bunker and there’s a nice piece of repeated choreography that sees a character walk in through the doorway as it is spun out onto the stage. Dark ripped plastic drapes hang down to complete the dirty dystopian look.

Heads are hacked off and placed in shopping bags. The ghosts of Banquo and Lady Macduff are very effectively spot lit in green. A street cone adds a modern twist to the rave scene (more KFC boneless banquet than sit down meal), and the age of MacDuff’s son Malcolm (Joseph Brown) is neatly set with childish Mickey Mouse pyjamas. There are a surprising number of laughs, mostly as a result of the physical gestures (like the two fingers given to the English).

Up until the end of Act III it’s a storming performance. The diction is sharp, a lot of care has gone into placing small speakers around the auditorium, so the dialogue is only amplified for the seats that need assistance, and gist of the story is clearly conveyed.

However, the tragedy of this version of Macbeth is that after the interval, the dramatic verve is subdued. The witches conjure up eight horrific back-headed descendants of Banquo, and there’s a bloody slaughter in the house of Macduff. But old tricks are repeated and the demise of Lady Macbeth is rather restrained, while Macbeth’s tender grief-filled reflection is spoilt by leaving his dead wife curled up against a wall. The final battle lacks punch or any sense of climax. It’s as if the director Rufus Norris wanted us to understand that death and retaliation are merely business as usual in a post-conflict society.

While a dialled-back Lady Macbeth cedes centre-stage to her husband, there is much to like about this National Theatre production of Macbeth, and it’s one of the rare chances outside of a school performance to see an 18-strong cast tackle the full piece.

Macbeth plays in the Grand Opera House until Saturday 9 March with 2.30pm matinee performances on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Photo credit: Brinkhoff Mogenburg

1 comment:

Zara_Jay said...

Really enjoyed this review!! Saw Macbeth tonight, very good show, was nice to relive it in your article :)