William Shakespeare
National Theatre
Donald Gordon Auditorium, Wales Millennium Centre

Michael Nardone Credit: Brinkhoff-Mogenburg
The Blasted Heath Credit: Brinkhoff-Mogenburg

I seldom go to see the same production twice, but I couldn't pass up the opportunity to experience once more the Royal National Theatre's Macbeth, much criticised in some quarters, which I first caught at the very end of its initial London run last year. My impression was that it was somewhat unhinged but thoroughly enjoyable, and I was anxious to see if the recast, touring version—the Cardiff dates comprising its final leg—retained its various eccentricities.

Rufus Norris's version of Shakespeare's iconic tale of destructive ambition and deleterious guilt is notable for its bold design. Placing us in a bleak, post-apocalyptic environment, Rae Smith's set is dominated by a large, moveable slope, which plays the part of the blasted heath upon which soldiers Macbeth and Banquo—Michael Nardone and Patrick Robinson—encounter three witches who, whilst shinning up palm tree styled metal poles, tell them that the former will soon be King of Scotland.

The numerous scene-changes give the impression of temporary encampments (with distractingly cheap-looking plastic chairs) and Moritz Junge's costumes, with plentiful denim, khaki and tracksuit bottoms, are redolent of depictions of the underclass. A notable exception is Tom Mannion's Duncan, the soon-to-be-usurped king, in a gangsterish red suit.

Lady Macbeth—a suitably regal Kirsty Besterman—encourages her husband to take his fate into his own hands and much bloodshed ensues. She and Nardone convince as a passionate pairing, both growing steadily more unbalanced as events spiral out of control, their loss of equilibrium occasionally provoking nervous audience titters.

The austere atmosphere is enhanced by the haunting soundtrack (credited to Orlando Gough, Marc Tritschler and Paul Arditti), which shifts into dance-music mode during the few celebratory moments; Paul Pyant's lighting design adds to the tone of general unease.

The supporting cast is strong—Patrick Robinson especially poignant as the doomed Banquo; Deka Walmsley amuses as the drunken Porter; and Rachel Sanders is powerful as the conflicted Thane of Fife in one of several instances of gender-swapping—one of the witches is male, one of the murderers engaged by Macbeth is female and Fleance, Banquo's son, is now his daughter (a playful Nisa Cole).

When Banquo's ghost makes its first appearance, bathed in yellow light, the effect is chilling. Subsequent ghostly manifestations are less visually impressive, however, and the sense of nightmarish tension tends to ebb.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, even though the stage of the Donald Gordon auditorium is smaller than that of the Olivier, where I saw the show in 2018, the piece seems less intimate here—perhaps because the barminess seems to have been dialled down a little and thus some intensity lost.

Nevertheless, the text is beautifully delivered throughout and, while Norris’s Macbeth is far from aesthetically pleasing, this suits the subject matter. The many sixth-formers who were in attendance will doubtless attest that Shakespeare was acutely perceptive in respect of the hellishness and pettiness of conflict.

Reviewer: Othniel Smith

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