The National Theatre’s new production of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth is at The Festival Theatre Edinburgh this week (Tues 23rd to Sat 27th October) bringing “The Scottish Play” finally to Scotland as part of this 2018 UK and Ireland Tour which has surprisingly few Scottish dates.
This production of Macbeth, directed by National Theatre Artistic Director Rufus Norris (Cabaret, London Road) and designed by Rae Smith (War Horse, This House) has been getting reviews both good and bad so far, and often when a work produces such opposing reactions there is something of real substance happening to cause these polarised viewpoints. Sadly, this time I don’t see that substance to this work and I am having no reaction to it either way, neither good, nor bad, just neutral indifference. Despite Macbeth having some of the most famous spoken lines in theatrical history, I am watching this performance, but nothing is pulling me into the story and making me want to hear the next word, or develop any empathy with any of the characters; everything is simply there, a sort of neutral landscape.
With any work of Shakespeare’s, you only really have two options available as a director – keep the story set as intended in the original script, or adapt it to another time, or place (or both). Here, the second choice is made and although we are in Scotland, we are in some un-named future apocalyptic civil war zone and, like many contemporary wars, plastics are everywhere; plastics for clothing, containers for drink, food, and many discarded items are everywhere. One survivor of any war is definitely going to be “plastics”. I get that message and theme completely, but with our cast dressed pretty much as we would see anyone walking down a street today, it often looks like people have just come in from their local weekly supermarket shopping trip.
There is a definite movement here also to reconnect us to nature and the supernatural by firmly connecting the wise women to the woods and their environment, and that works with very limited effect. That connection with the supernatural though is far more subtle, and when King Macbeth seeks out further guidance from the “wise women”, we are reminded just how swiftly people turn to guidance from unknown and unseen forces even today. There is something that seems almost hard wired into the human psyche to do this, but we never really explore any of the possible reasons why here. Our “wise women” of old folk legends here had an opportunity to add something very different to this production but, overall, the opportunity was missed.
This is a National Theatre production, so you would expect performances of a high standard to be part of any production, and in this area, with a principal cast below, this is what we get.
Macbeth – Michael Nardone
Lady Macbeth - Kirsty Besterman
Banquo - Patrick Robinson
King Duncan - Tom Mannion
Malcolm - Joseph Brown
Macduff - Ross Waiton
Lady Macduff - Lisa Zahra
Porter - Deka Walmsley
Ross - Rachel Sanders
There are some fine individual performances here, but that again is part of the problem for me as it too often seems like we are getting just that, “individual performances” that are too often not joining the spaces up and connecting the characters together. It’s almost as if the performance of “the words” has somehow got in the way of what connects these often very closely knitted individuals to one another.
Macbeth is a complex work with many dark psychological twists and turns, and it is here that some of the best work is done. Kirsty Besterman is a very good as the manipulative Lady Macbeth and also gives us a good performance of a woman in the middle of a psychological breakdown as she tries to remove the imagined blood from her hands. Michael Nardone is also strongest for me in his portrayal of Macbeth when we are on the razor edge of his sanity with him. These are well observed performances but, somehow, the disintegration the Macbeths’ joint sanity and power never really connects to one another for me. With a very clearly, and different from everyone else on stage visual identity, Kirsty Besterman does stand out clearly here, and also at a performance level gets to steal so many scenes. Banquo for some reason is the only character here that I was even starting to take a real interest in , and that is down to a fine performance by Patrick Robinson. Macbeth is about power, passions, ambition, and the darker side that lies within us all, but never letting the audience witness King Duncan’s murder, or Lady Macbeth’s suicide in this production was a mistake as these scenes potentially had so much power in them.
Macbeth is never going to be a light hearted night out at the theatre. It is a brutal play set in brutal times, and the decapitation scenes have, with no intention when written originally, so much resonance in what has happened at home and across the world in recent years. An unintentional reminder perhaps of the barbarism that we all risk sliding back into as a modern society. There is enormous potential in these scenes, but sadly the “special effects” simply are not special or convincing when needed. We are in a war zone here but, again, some very unconvincing fight scenes.
Macbeth is a difficult set for any designer to bring to the stage as there are so many changes of scene, and just how do you bring a wood to life on stage? Part of the magic of theatre is its ability to make the audience imagine and expand upon what is suggested on stage and to imagine what is not there. Again, this set is just not doing that for me, and as I left the theatre to an overcast but clearly visible and bright full moon moving in and out of the dark clouds, I realised what an obvious visual opportunity and connection to the supernatural was simply missed in our theatrical world on stage.
For me, costume and clothes denote many things – social status, wealth, power, one’s standing in a society - and the everyday, out in the streets clothing look has been done so many times in post apocalyptic war films of recent years that it just at best blends into that genre and at worst reduces everyone to the everyday (even if our King is in splendid red).
This production is an odd one. It has huge potential to tell the story in a bold and new way, but somehow fails to deliver in either the bold or the new. It is a little bit like trying to skim stones across a smooth water’s surface; when the stone bounces across the water, at those points something interesting does happen, but for the most part, it is rarely the power of the moving stone but instead the placid water’s surface just below.
Review by Tom King