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A CurtainUp London Review

". . .full of sound and fury signifying nothing." — Macbeth
Soldiers in Macbeth (Photo: Brinkhoff Mögenburg)
The Olivier is a huge stage and expectations at the National are equally high. Starring Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff, Rufus Norris's Macbeth has been long anticipated. But thinking back to the many Macbeths I've seen, very few have succeeded. Even those starring knights of the theatre, Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Derek Jacobi were risable in places and we are forced to ask that if great actors can stumble on the field of Dunsinane, who it is who can ride this problematic play successfully?

One of the most hilarious Macbeths was that directed and starring Peter O'Toole at the Old Vic in 1980 which Timothy West has amusingly written about at length. The castle set was black inflatable plastic bags which swayed on stage. (This excerpt is from the Old Vic's website).

"In 1980 Peter O’Toole returned to The Old Vic with what was to become an infamous, and vitally important, production of Macbeth. With rumours of inflatable scenery, a visit by Princess Margaret during rehearsals to lift the curse of the production and an insert into the programme on opening night from Artistic Director Timothy West stating that he was disowning the production, the play was the first commercial success for The Old Vic since the departure of The National Theatre in 1976."

It is a shame that Kevin Spacey stayed away from Macbeth during his tenure as Artistic Director at the Old Vic. As later in the play at the National, a part of the Olivier set by Rae Smith is a backdrop of hanging shredded black plastic I was reminded of the Old Vic disaster, but box office success, using similar material.

In the Olivier, there is a huge dark set dominated by a slope and the first action we see is the beheading of his opponent by Macbeth (Rory Kinnear). Human entrails hang off the slope. The soldiers are dressed in modern clothes, think Mad Max films and anything post apocalyptic. Three witches use the poles to climb on and are as disparate as any three sisters might be, one is tall, black and stately, one is womanly with fishnets and the youngest one has a squeaky giggle, assisted by the sound direction to sound unnatural. Plumes of smoke fire up near each of the witches.

Patrick O'Kane from Ireland plays Macduff but many of the soldiers speak with Scottish accents. I was impressed by Kinnear's opening speech. My impression immediately was of a conflicted Macbeth, already disturbed by the prophecies of the witches — , "Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair. And make my seated heart knock at my ribs. Against the use of nature? Present fears."

One of the problems with this play is the speed with which Lady Macbeth (Anne-Marie Duff) is required to urge the murder of their guest, the saintly, red suited King Duncan (Stephen Boxer). We have no chance to get to know her before she is egging on her husband using all her sexual wiles and emasculating viciousness to taunt him into action. The switch to Macbeth's castle is a design disaster in that Lady Macbeth's bedroom is a tiny concrete walled room looking as if it were furnished out of a skip. The king and soldiers arrive like a crowd of partying, drunken football hooligans. I was amused briefly by a tumbling cardboard box in it an unseen child cutely stealing the scene.

I have never related well to the Porter scenes in Macbeth and felt the same about Trevor Fox. The two murderers (Andrew Frame and Alana Ramsey) recruited by Macbeth to kill Banquo (Kevin Harvey) are junkies looking for their next fix. The ill assorted chairs in the pre-fabricated royal dining hall and decorating tables used for wallpapering are the antithesis of opulence. I wondered who would place any value on possessing this kingdom as there seem precious few benefits. Lady Macbeth, now the queen, wears a backless red sequined ball dress which is rather chilly for the Scottish weather.

The Olivier's revolve is used to move the slope aside and in one battle scene the whole cast are dressed in red suits to confuse the enemy but with uniform masked faces which I had difficulty in ascertaining as a Kinnear lookalike.

What is the director saying? War is evil? In this centenary of the emancipation of women Macbeth is a wrong headed play showing how giving women power is a bad idea? The National Theatre programme often has strong hints in the chosen background articles as to the active interpretation when we haven't discerned all the themes ourselves. An American professor Marianne Novy writes, "While the play shows female power, this is not feminist but instead works as justification for attempts to subordinate woman". Other articles talk about choice and the supernatural and fortune telling and the proximity of the Apocalypse.

The important verse and the beauty of Macbeth's poetry means that the play is never absent for long from the syllabus for school examinations (at 16 in England and Scotland), so there is an eager young audience wanting to see the text they are studying, staged. It may also be the second most quoted Shakespeare play after Hamlet.

For my money, the most successful Macbeth of recent times was Lucy Bailey's for the Globe starring Elliot Cowan as Macbeth as Lucy Bailey does the blood and gore of battle with a particular skill ( here). I did also like Ray Fearon's performance at the Globe but sadly, not Emma Rice and Iqbal Khan's production nor Tara Fitzgerald's Lady Macbeth ( here). However, one of the best is surely Rupert Goold's set in a Stalinist Siberian white out, although our reviewer in London was less than keen on his choice of Macbeth, Patrick Stewart ( the review here but my editor in New York disagreed ( the review here). Both reviewers were impressed by Kate Fleetwood's Lady M. Goold's production is available on film. I was also impressed by Jamie Lloyd's production at the Trafalgar Studios (the review here) starring Jamie McAvoy as Macbeth.

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Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Rufus Norris
Starring: Rory Kinnear, Anne-Marie Duff, Patrick O'Kane, Trevor Fox, Kevin Harvey
With: Nadia Albina, Michael Balogun, Stephen Boxer, Andrew Frame, Hannah Hutch, Nicholas Karimi, Joshua Lacey, Penny Layden, Anna-Maria Nabirye, Amaka Okafor, Hauk Pattison, Alana Ramsey, Beatrice Scirocchi, Rakhee Sharma, Parth Thakerar
Set Design: Rae Smith
Movement Director: Imogen Knight
Fight Director: Kev McCurdy and Jeremy Barlow
Music Director: Marc Tritschler
Costume Design: Moritz Junge
Music: Orlando Gough
Sound Design: Paul Arditti
Lighting Design: James Farncombe
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 23rd June 2018
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 7th March 2018 performance at the Olivier, National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)
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