The Manchester Review

National Theatre’s Macbeth | The Lowry

Macbeth | The Lowry | October 4th, 2018

Macbeth, like many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, is known for its brutal deaths. Rufus Norris’s National Theatre production of Macbeth, which has started a UK tour this week in The Lowry, Salford, after a run in London earlier this year, gives the audience its fair share of brutal murders and beheadings if not necessarily a fair share of the play’s poetry and beauty. “Fair is foul and foul is fair”, perhaps.

Norris’s production is a modernised and abridged version of Macbeth, set in a post-apocalyptic Scotland. Shakespeare’s play is engrossing as ever, but the production is often more of a distraction than a vital new vision.

The most notable example of this is Norris’s use of the witches, whose role has been streamlined but sidelined, with some memorable dialogue removed and their exchanges with Macbeth more limited. The characterisation of the witches is less “weird” and more inexplicable, with the three sisters dressed in transparent plastic raincoats, spending most of their time cavorting at the top of three large polls decorated with bin bags. The curious gymnastic routines may distract the audience from what the witches have to say, which should be more interesting. “Something wicked” never this way comes. As the characters are so marginalised any sense of their supernatural nature is constrained, leaving me wondering how such characters have survived in the ruthless lawlessness of this supposedly post-apocalyptic world. It seems that these decisions were made to focus attention more on the complicated humanity of the Macbeths rather than on supernatural forces, which has its merits, it’s just a shame that the witches are rendered baffling rather than powerful.

The post-apocalypse setting appears somewhat of a double-edged sword for the production. Rae Smith’s set design is dark, dreary and minimalist. Black bin-bags are used in a variety of ways, stretched out as a wall, stitched together as curtains, and hanging as shreds from poles that may serve to represent dead trees. All the characters wear grey, black, or khaki, apart from Lady Macbeth, who wears an emerald green duffle coat during the feast scenes, and King Duncan, whose position of authority is distinguished by a rather flamboyant bright red suit. The spartan nature of the designs may convey the collapse of society to the audience but the stage may also feel lacklustre in a way that hinders the story and appears simply quite ugly in a way that is disengaging. Why are the characters motivated to fight over this? Why does ownership of this space even matter?

Perhaps the lacklustre staging speaks to the futility of the power struggles that define human history and the scenes of destruction that they produce. Perhaps. Yet, even after Macbeth kills Duncan, the only transfer of wealth communicated to the audience manifests in Macbeth’s costume change to a bright red suit. The suggestion may have been that Macbeth was wearing the clothes of the old emperor but the actors have such different body types that one does slightly wonder where the tailors and suit fitters are hiding in Norris’s post-apocalypse. Certainly the characters must also have found a reliable source of cleaning products to keep washing the blood stains from their clothes and keep them looking so fresh. The problem, therefore, is that the post-apocalyptic concept of Norris’s production raises unanswered and distracting questions that could have been but are not addressed by the set design, the use of props, and a more meticulous combination of the source dialogue and character actions on stage.

This sense of discord between plot and concept is made more apparent by Michael Nardone’s characterisation of Macbeth. Nardone gives a compelling performance of Macbeth as a conflicted and vulnerable man. Nardone’s body language is strikingly unmajestic, offering a slouching and shabby Macbeth that feels thrust into a position entirely unbefitting for him. No wonder he goes mad. However, there’s no sense of grand transition in his descent, as this Macbeth appears to doubt the prophecy from the off. This Macbeth is no warrior and certainly not a leader that would be likely to triumph in a post-apocalypse.

For such an unkingly characterisation, in such an uncompromising post-apocalyptic setting, therefore, one does wonder why Lady Macbeth would want her husband to assume power over the nothingness offered on stage. Indeed, Macbeth’s wife remains strong and forceful, and you almost wish the production had been bolder in its changes to the source material and made her the new king.

Indeed, Kirsty Besterman stands out for all the right reasons as Lady Macbeth. She brings a warmth and humanity to the character even in her most ruthless moments. Though deeply flawed as a character, you can understand why this Lady Macbeth wanted more power in such a vulnerable and anarchic world. In one of the more subtle pieces of staging, Lady Macbeth’s quarters appear to have a number of unused baby clothes, which adds pathos to her line “I have given suck”, suggesting that the desperate circumstances of the post-apocalypse are particularly inhospitable for childbirth. In the final scene between Lady Macbeth and her husband, he holds her in his arms and pauses in silence. You can almost hear Macbeth breathing as he holds his wife’s lifeless body. It’s a touching moment that allows the audience to take in the effects of the play’s action, which is frenetic and rushed through in many other scenes.

Standout performances do come particularly from Patrick Robinson as Banquo and Rachel Sanders as Ross. Both deliver each and every single one of their lines with heart and intellect that really captures the meanings and beauty of the poetry provided to them. They animate every scene and were a joy to watch. The scene in which Banquo’s ghost appears to Macbeth at the feast is well conceived on stage by the actors and the use of lighting, and is one of the production’s strongest moments.

Ultimately, though, it’s still a wonder to behold the work of Shakespeare, who created plays with such vibrant characters and stories that a performance of Macbeth is sold out on a rainy Thursday night in The Lowry, Salford, four-hundred-and-twelve years after it was first performed at the Globe, in London, in 1606. At times it was almost like the performance was taking place in the Globe of the 17th Century, as a passionate kiss between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth when they first see each other on stage was received with a very loud set of cheers and laughter from the stalls up to the grand circle, and when the characters cheered drunkenly in feast scenes it was responded to with similar chanting from groups in the audience. By contrast, there was a great silence as Lady Macbeth’s bloodstained body was held in Macbeth’s arms, underscoring the power of the scene. Despite flaws in this attempt to offer a modernised retelling, the tragedy of Macbeth is perennially compelling.

by David Firth

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