Rufus Norris’ post-apocalyptic MACBETH is visually striking but doesn’t quite translate as well as hoped
When Rufus Norris’ MACBETH opened at the National Theatre back in March 2018, it was met with mixed reviews from the critics. Despite playing to sell-out crowds at the Olivier Theatre, the production earned a miserly one-star review from WhatsOnStage and just two stars from The Guardian and The Telegraph. So when then the National Theatre announced they were taking MACBETH out on a UK and Ireland tour, I must admit I was surprised.
Set in a barbaric world afflicted by a bloody civil war, MACBETH sees Shakespeare’s complex characters fighting ruthlessly to survive in a dog-eat-dog world. Thrust towards the crown by forces of elemental darkness, Macbeth, encouraged by his power-hungry wife, murders King Duncan and takes the Scottish throne for himself until guilt and paranoia begin to take over.
Norris’ production of MACBETH propels Shakespeare’s classic tragedy into a post-apocalyptic world of anarchy and uncertainty. Rae Smith’s dark and oppressive set design, dominated by a large sloping wooden walkway, sets the tone for this grim, grimy and gritty adaption, where thanes fight in grubby jeans and battle armour consists of military vests held on with parcel tape. The opening scene, in which Macbeth decapitates the rebel leader on stage before putting his head in a plastic bag and hanging it from a dead tree, demonstrates the sort of lawless, survive-or-die scenario the Macbeths now find themselves in. Yet, this barbaric world brings its own problems to Shakespeare’s classic play.
The biggest issue with Norris’ production is the sense of importance of what is being fought over is lost. Here, Duncan is presiding not over a kingdom but a localised turf-war, so why does Macbeth aspire to be king when there’s no such thing as a kingdom? More importantly, why do we care about the repercussions? After all, these are savages in a savage world where murder seems to be the norm.
The same can be said about the characters. The barbaric nature of the whole situation affects the emotion of the piece. Scenes which should be devastating – such as when Lady Macduff is presented with the remains of her children in plastic bags – ultimately lack impact. The decision to cut the Witches also changes their influence on the story, turning them into skittering ghosts who prophesy the action without visibly influencing it.
Thankfully, the cast performances are strong. Michael Nardone captures Macbeth’s soldierly brusqueness, the rough warrior reduced to a helpless, quivering wreck after Duncan’s murder. Kirsty Besterman is equally strong as Lady Macbeth, her passion, warmth and hunger towards her husband slowly turning to anger and horror as his sanity spectacularly unravels. There’s also good support from Ross Waiton as Macduff, Patrick Robinson as a watchful Banquo and Elizabeth Chan, Evelyn Roberts and Olivia Sweeney as the ghostly three witches.
Where Norris’s production excels, however, is in atmosphere and visuals. There is a distinct nightmarish mood to the production, helped by visual flourishes such as creepy face-masks, dolls’ limbs hanging from the witches’ clothes and Orlando Gough’s unusual yet effective score which has an insidious eeriness to it.
You also have to admire Norris for taking such a risk with this epic and visually daring production. It’s clear that the director has tried to bring this timeless story up-to-date by showing that the human power-play continues long after the system has been destroyed. Shame then that it doesn’t quite translate as well as hoped.
MACBETH runs at The Lowry, Salford until 6 October 2018
Donna is the Founder and Editor of Frankly, My Dear UK. By day, she works as a digital marketing specialist, by night she reviews film, theatre and music for a wide range of publications including WhatsonStage and The Reviews Hub. Loves Formula 1, prosecco and life.