Remember when Anne-Marie Duff was best known as Fiona from Shameless, rather than as a harbinger of dodgy plays? Me neither.
in a scene for the RSC’s 2016 Shakespeare celebration special, but it’s the National that’s brought them together again for a full production. Much has been made of the fact that this Macbeth is Rufus Norris’ first time directing Shakespeare in 25 years, and only his second ever, an admission that’s inevitably come back to haunt a production whose negative critical reaction has been hard to miss, even if you try to avoid reviews and spoilers. Coming in with low expectations can sometimes mean you’re pleasantly surprised, and I guess at least we can say that Duff hasn’t landed herself in something quite as unwatchable as Common again (Ian and I both actually came back after the interval this time.) Norris has moved the play’s setting from mediaeval Scotland to a post-apocalyptic near future where supplies are scarce and gangs in makeshift armour fight over what’s left.
The red-suited King Duncan (Stephen Boxer) cuts an incongruous figure here, but he seems to command respect; Kinnear’s Macbeth has been given a supernatural prophecy that he will succeed him in power, though, and he’s willing to commit murder to speed up the process.
The negative reaction to this production, and mixed one to the RSC one I should be seeing in a couple of weeks’ time, has led to a lot of discussion about why Macbeth stands out among the best-loved Shakespeare plays in having a track record of disastrous productions (I suspect there’s some truth to the theory that its reputation as an unlucky play comes from the amount of people who’ve had the worst reviews of their careers for it.) One argument is that the play’s tone is very hard to get right, and this certainly joins the list of productions that go so hard for the play’s darkness there’s nothing else left – no humour, no light and shade and, as the evening goes on, no variety of mood or pace.
But what stands out as problematic here in particular is that I don’t know what world Norris has created for the play. I don’t need a high concept spoon-fed to me but I do need some suggestion of what kind of universe Kinnear’s Macbeth inhabits. A few years ago Jamie Lloyd also went post-apocalyptic for the same play but there was some sense of internal logic to the setting. Here I have no idea who they’re meant to have been fighting at the start, who they’re fighting at any given point later in the play, or how a power structure that includes a hereditary ruler fits into a world I'd describe as Mad Max: Beyond Thundercunt. I also had no idea what Duncan’s rule actually was – is he a king or the leader of a gang? Either is fine, but neither seems exactly to be the case here. Then there’s the downright bizarre choices, like the scene where Duncan arrives at the Macbeths’ castle and raves about its location, played dead straight despite the fact that it’s a filthy hovel.
What I missed most of all was a sense that this was a place where replacing the king by assassinating him would be considered ignoble, or at the very least unusual; after all the Macbeths spend the rest of the play being punished for it by their consciences. But this is such a crapsack world, people are so grateful to Macbeth for giving them a can of beer that they’re willing to murder for him. It’s a survival-of-the-fittest situation where bumping off the leader at the first sign of weakness would surely be the default. I was set off thinking about how the succession works by an interesting scene where, as Duncan announces his son as heir, everyone seems shocked that Parth Thakerar’s badly wounded, seemingly weak Malcolm should be chosen, but nobody questions it. Like much else with promise, the idea isn't really developed.
There’s a lot more instances where interesting ideas are touched on then dropped, or fail to fit in with any other aspect of the production. The witches have distinct movement styles, Anna-Maria Nabirye chillingly still, Beatrice Scirocchi sinisterly sexy and Hannah Hutch a whirling dervish of a possessed child. The combination borders on creating a really chilling effect, but the witches’ roles are cut down to the extent where they make little impact, and don’t feel significant to the story. Banquo’s (Kevin Harvey) ghost as a shambling zombie only Macbeth can see is another promising idea that feels half-formed.
Given the porter scene consists of stand-up comedy that’s highly topical to 1606 I’m not sure why anyone ever expects it to still be funny without significant rewriting; so I’m all for having Trevor Fox’s Porter be a sinister figure instead, changing the specific targets of his speech so that it’s the Macbeths themselves he foresees knocking on the gates of Hell, and becoming a kind of accessory to the murder after the fact. But his role is then conflated with those of the Third Murderer, Seyton, the Cream-Faced Loon and the Messenger who warns Lady Macduff, meaning his loyalties and personality shift constantly.
The fact that there are these interesting ideas floating around stops the production from being a complete loss, the performances also helping: Anne-Marie Duff might be to theatrical flops as a magnet is to iron filings, but there’s a powerful performance from her under the production’s misfires. Kinnear is more disappointing, but there’s moments when his usual ability to illuminate a line with a throwaway reading crops up, as well. But the dark drabness of Rae Smith’s set and Moritz Junge’s costumes only reinforces the feeling of monotony, giving you nothing worth looking at (unless you count Nicholas Karimi as Lennox which, even under a couple of inches of mud, I do.) I don’t think this is quite a disaster for the ages (thanks to Macbeth being back on the syllabus, a lot of school parties will be seeing this and I don’t think it’ll put too many kids off theatre for life) but it’s certainly a serious misfire.
Macbeth by William Shakespeare is booking in repertory until the 23rd of June at the National Theatre's Olivier; then continuing on tour to Salford, Plymouth, Edinburgh, Norwich, Aberdeen, Newcastle, Sheffield, Bath, Oxford, Dublin, Nottingham, Hull, Canterbury, Glasgow, Southampton, Belfast, Wolverhampton and Cardiff.
Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes including interval.
Photo credit: Brinkhoff and Moegenburg.