Olivier, National Theatre – until 23 June 2018
You don’t expect robes and battlements these days. This is a shaven-head-and-machete Macbeth, its theme an indeterminate, timeless squalor: possibly a feral modern war, possibly post-apocalyptic.
The murder of Duncan, set thus, is hard to see as regicidal sacrilege – “his silver skin laced with his golden blood”. Though the always fine Stephen Boxer as the short-lived monarch does, with characteristic subtlety, manages to express something I had never really noticed: that his betrayal by the original Cawdor, who he had trusted, distressed and unbalanced him into over-trusting the tricky Macbeths.
The problem, however, is that the world Rufus Norris directs in Rae Smith’s tenebrous, crumpled-binbag-and-blockhouse set with its dark steep trundling ramp, towering diseased trees, disorderly roistering and makeshift armour fastened on with rolls of duct-tape, seems as if it never had any place for loyalty, moral codes or civilised reflection. Indeed the only times we glimpse any furniture that isn’t plastic or a folding old camping-table are in the home of Lady Macduff and the English refuge of young Donald (it may be that the presence of a carpet and sofa and tidier clothes is code for higher moral virtue). Though Lady Macbeth does eventually get out of her vest and pleather jeans into a ragged, sub-Oscar, sequinned raspberry frock once she is Queen.
The bleak, smoky, savage setting makes Rory Kinnear’s task as the racked, tempted, murderous, hesitant, panicking Macbeth harder than it need be. Of course he is as ever a great Shakespearian, each word and gesture achieved with intelligence and feeling. His relationship with the equally remarkable Anne Marie Duff as his sexy, tricky, maternally hungry and tormented wife is as good as I have seen it. Their first eye-meet, when each knows that the other is thinking murder, is riveting, as is the moment when he holds her dead body in his arms for: “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…” Norris’ technique of creating action-freezes for soliloquies helps in the first half too, detaching Kinnear for a merciful moment from the thuggish hopeless scene.
Yet somehow, I’m not quite buying it. We are used to gore and nasty things hung on trees and lots beheadings, ever since the technology for reproducing actors’ heads improved. Fine. But unlike the Hytner Othello – set in a modern army camp – or his Hamlet in a recognizable police-state, the misery-world evoked here gives no sense that there ever were nobilities to be breached by the Macbeths. It’s just chaos, and you expect no better. There are excellent Norris touches – the always problematic “comedy’ porter (Trevor Fox) is allowed to have seen into Duncan’s death-room, and weaves into his ramblings bits of Lady Macbeth’s speech about boneless gums and nipples. That absolutely works. So does Alana Ramsey as a cross-gendered Second Murderer, giving it large as a furious slaggy blonde in fishnets , fur boots and machete: the character’s claim that life has treated her so badly that she’ll do anything has a MeToo feeling about it, and Ramsey is superbly vicious, presenting Lady Macduff with her slaughtered babies in plastic bags like a nightmare Ocado delivery. Kevin Harvey’s Banquo is excellent too, with a dry civilized air about him which makes his return as a bloodstained lurching zombie ghost all the more effective.
Oh, and the witches? They’re OK: shamanic, acrobatic, eerie, one wearing what looks like entrails outside her body but which turn out to be bits of dismembered baby dolls. Or possibly actual babies, it’s that sort of show. But on the whole, by the time the three main zombie victims return to watch the final fight (King Duncan endearingly finding a plastic chair to settle down and watch from) there is no sense of a tragic fall. Just of another thuggish gang war, an East End brawl with no sense to it and not much hope for young Donald.