Olivier, National Theatre – until 23 June 2018
Despite featuring two of the National Theatre’s best-loved leads of the last few years, Rufus Norris’ Macbeth has been on the end of universally poor reviews. Norris has received some bad press, much of which is unjustified, for his programming in the Olivier Theatre, an infamously fickle space which has caught out every NT director during their tenure. Using the Olivier to stage new work has annoyed prominent critics, but is surely much-needed. However, it was perhaps unwise of Norris to take on critics by staging not only his second ever Shakespeare, but the one notorious for sinking reputations. However, like productions such as Common and Saint George and the Dragon, this Macbeth isn’t the disaster that has been claimed – nor is it a success.
Rae Smith’s vast set, dominated by a swivelling bridge, attempts to turn the cavernous spaces of Olivier stage into the witch-ridden Scottish moors. It is dramatic but confused, combining Throne of Blood medieval Japanese horror with cyber-Goth accessories and bin bag backdrops. It looks amazing in the opening scene, as Rory Kinnear pursues a rebel lord on stage and beheads him with a machete.
However, Macbeth is not a play of epic battle scenes – the majority of the action is in intimate, claustrophobic settings. These have to be levered out of the huge stage spaces, and much of the play is spent in a concrete bunker or a temporary lean-to at the front of the stage, cutting out the majority of the space. While this makes sense as the architecture of a disrupted, warring nation, it undermines the poetry of the play. Balancing delicate language with grim reality is the challenge of Macbeth, and more difficult than it seems.
Kinnear is caught in the same bind, a stocky, bluff military character with a tendency to choke back his lines. This is a Kinnear mannerism, usually under complete control, but his Macbeth seems less relaxed than his many previous successes at the NT. But as soon as the deed is done, a switch is flicked and he finds his groove as a possessed psychopath. It has rarely been clearer that Macbeth gives up all control of his future as soon as he stabs Duncan. Anne-Marie Duff’s Lady Macbeth is more smoothly conceived. She plays the party-loving hostess with conviction, and a chilling ability to manipulate. Her horror when she realises she no longer matters is gone is a defining moment in the play.
There a number of intelligent, enjoyable performances in the supporting cast: Stephen Boxer’s foppish Duncan, Kevin Harvey’s angular Banquo and Patrick O’Kane’s warrior Macduff are all memorable. Trevor Fox’s strange, Geordie Porter reappears throughout as an attendant to Macbeth and as a sinister Third Murderer. His fellow murderers are effectively played as post-hippy drop-outs, and there is an illegal party theme to the staging, amusing and confusing in equal measure, which involves Duncan spending his final night dancing on a table lit by a generator.
The over-complication that undermines the staging affects the Witches too, who combine too many ideas to make much sense as a collective, although they look remarkable perched, swaying, on tall poles overlooking the final battle. Their cauldron scene, however, is inexcusably cut. The English scene, with Malcolm testing Macduff’s loyalty is not Shakespeare’s finest moment, but cutting most of it while leaving only the start and end makes little sense.
Once the play breaks free from the complications of its set its rolls much more smoothly. With the murder of the Macduffs, Rae Smith manages to stage the action on a reasonable portion of the stage. Kinnear in particular, relaxes into his role and the final scenes are delivered with credibility. Norris’ production is messy and lacks the clarity of thought needed to stage such an unforgiving play. There is also much to like and enjoy about this production too, including inventive performances and strong ideas. However, Norris should probably play to his strengths as a director, which are many, and not feel he needs to transform into Nicholas Hytner as well.