Touring – reviewed at Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
There is a peculiar absence of majesty at the heart of the National Theatre’s touring production of Macbeth.
The production, directed by Rufus Norris, came in for some harsh criticism during its London run. Now with a new cast, it remains an odd beast – visually striking and boasting some excellent acting, but unsatisfactory on several levels.
Despite the contention that this production is set ‘now, after a civil war’, there is nothing that is particularly urgent or contemporary about it. Instead, there is an odd assortment of modern and timeless props, mirrored by an equally strange collection of acting styles.
This means that nothing really coheres. Michael Nardone (who would seem to be a dream piece of casting as Macbeth) is an almost apologetic figure who becomes king more by accident than anything else. Kirsty Besterman’s Lady Macbeth starts sounding like one of the more middle-class characters from a Mike Leigh film, but gains in pathos as the play progresses.
While both performances are impressive in themselves, there is no compelling reason to believe in them as a couple. This disconnection is felt across the whole company – Patrick Robinson’s Banquo has a rare dignity, but there is nothing to suggest that he and Macbeth are seasoned comrades-in-arms.
Everyone suffers from apparently being instructed to speak the verse oddly, with much of it fractured and halting; Nardone’s soliloquies do sound convincing as if the ideas are just occurring to him, but as a result there is a conspicuous lack of poetry (which is not helped by having the ‘tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’ speech split in two).
Strange cuts in other places do not help the flow. Some of the casting decisions – the increased role of Deke Walmsley’s Porter, for example – are intriguing. Others – such as the combining of Young and Old Siward in one role – are just baffling.
Olivia Sweeney, Kirsty Besterman (Lady Macbeth) and Reuben Johnson Pic: Brinkhoff-Mogenburg
Tom Mannion’s Siward does demonstrate, however (in being such a contrast to his earlier portrayal of Duncan) what an excellent cast is on display here – albeit one that is ill-served by a production that is not always thought through.
Characters cannot have been removed on the grounds of a lack of bodies, with a 19-strong cast; the running time is short by Shakespearean standards and there could easily have been a few more minutes squeezed in.
Cutting large chunks of the scene between Malcolm (Joseph Ross) and Macduff (Ross Watson) makes the former’s motives less believable, while the complete removal of Duncan’s other son Donalbain makes Malcolm’s desire for ‘separated fortune’ utterly inexplicable.
While many of these excisions could be justified in terms of appeal to modern audiences, losing ‘double, double, toil and trouble’ is wilfully perverse, especially considering the large numbers of school students who will make up the audience. Instead, we get witches dressed in plastic macs who shin up giant poles, apparently for no reason other than that they can.
The Witches. Pic Brinkhoff-Mogenburg
Moments that should have gravitas are played for laughs, and it is noticeable that battle scenes seem underpopulated, even with so many people on stage – more proof of the lack of any real ensemble feel to the production.
The Scottish play is a notoriously forgiving text, that has happily survived being butchered by people with far less theatrical nous than Norris. What can be said about this production, whatever it may lack in tragic pity and grand poetics, is that it scores highly in straightforward storytelling. It bowls along at speed, with some pleasing tableaux. Rae Smith’s imposing set, all blood, rust and khaki, is crowned by a huge bridge, and good use is made of versatile furniture.
Mark Tritschker’s music may be burbly and underwhelming, but Kev McCurdy’s fight direction is pleasingly visceral – to say nothing of some enticing gore, notably a couple of nifty beheadings.
There is nothing new being said here, either about Shakespeare or the times we live in, but as a straightforward version of Macbeth it passes muster. With such a cast and these resources, however, you cannot help but feel this is a missed opportunity.