Olivier, National Theatre – until 23 June 2018
The themes of Shakespeare’s Macbeth are timeless. Avaricious envy, revenge, and the consequences of guilt have driven humanity’s darker side for centuries and in the hands of a talented cast, Macbeth’s journey makes for compelling theatre.
On the National Theatre’s Olivier stage, Rufus Norris has assembled just such a cast. Once the weird sisters have him under their spell Rory Kinnear’s Macbeth convincingly topples from dutiful Thane to treacherous subject – his own frailties steeled by Ann-Marie Duff as his purposeful wife.
Macbeth will always be a character imbued with his own late-dawning, if misguided, sense of immortality. In this production Kinnear, who is a joy to watch throughout especially in making the classic soliloquies his own, is never finer than in his endgame of realisation, learning of MacDuff’s untimely ripping from his mother’s womb.
Duff is pure, if fatally flawed, evil. We believe in her capacity to dash her suckling baby’s brains out, with Duff then making Lady Macbeth’s descent into a suicidal insanity, entirely plausible. With any semblance of a moral compass long since vanished, hers truly is a lost soul.
But it’s not just Norris’ starry leads that drive this production. The play reunites (in Shakespearean terms) Stephen Boxer’s sage Duncan with Kevin Harvey’s energised Banquo, last seen together when Boxer was Titus to Harvey’s Aaron. Both men are English theatre gems. It is only a shame that Banquo’s ghostly re-appearances carry no dialogue. Harvey’s mellifluous Scouse twang is a delight and one longs for his future Othello. Elsewhere, as a passionate yet cynical MacDuff, Patrick O’Kane defines burning vengeance.
Here however, the Bard’s beautiful prose is overburdened by Norris and designer Rae Smith’s contemporary interpretations. The setting is “now, after a civil war”, with the accompanying programme essays making throwaway comparisons to Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton and Brexit. A curious set design comprising a steeply raked ramp, poles and drapes made from (what appear to be) bin-liners seems to have been constructed with more of an eye for the demands of a touring production (Macbeth takes to the road in the autumn) rather than using the full potential of the Olivier’s gaping jaws.
The politics may be clumsy but the acting is beautiful. Make no mistake, Rory Kinnear is a magnificent Macbeth.