William Shakespeare
National Theatre
Sheffield Crucible

Evelyn Roberts, Elizabeth Chan and Olivia Sweeney (Three Witches) Credit: Brinkhoff Mogenburg
The cast of the UK and Ireland tour of the NTs Macbeth Credit: Brinkhoff Mogenburg

Rufus Norris’s dark and uncompromising production of Macbeth ‘speaks to the times’. Images of devastation and ecological disaster proliferate and the upset in the natural world is echoed in brutal human action.

In Rae Smith’s striking set, huge tattered curtains fall from roof to floor suggesting a ravaged firmament barely held together by threads which casts a dull light over a steep incline suggesting a broken bridge and a few surrealist palm trees with limp tattered leaves that hang down like an overused dish mop.

Internal scenes take place in a concrete bunker or in plain wooden huts. Macbeth’s feast after the murder of Banquo is served on two trestle tables while guests sit on a motley collection of old tubular chairs and drinks are poured from a large plastic container, the kind that holds large quantities of detergent. Whatever Macbeth thought he was inheriting after the assassination of Duncan, it wasn’t worth it.

The degeneration of the human species is reflected in the presentation of the three weird sisters, who now not only crouch like animals but have developed the monkey-like skill of shinning up the metallic trunks of the palms trees and burying themselves in the drooping foliage. The plastic macs they wear are an anomaly too far. While they are hidden observers of events and their amplified, echoic voices create a chill, the usual prevailing sense of supernatural intervention in human lives is diminished.

The drabness of the post apocalyptic world is reflected in the shabby military-style costumes from which there is little alleviation. Kingship is briefly indicated by the blood-red suit worn by Duncan which is passed on to Macbeth when he assumes power.

Performance is dominated by a prevailing lassitude, so that even the scene of Duncan’s murder falls flat and Malcolm can only mutter a few barely audible words before making a swift exit. The procession of Banquo’s progeny is clumsily managed with backward worn masks which make movement difficult and rob the scene of significance. The plastic theme runs through the production with severed heads and infant remains tidied away in convenient transparent shopping bags.

A scene that does work effectively is the appearance of Banquo’s ghost at Macbeth’s feast. Here the courtiers face the audience so we can see their expressions of increasing horror as Macbeth reveals his culpability in the sequence of murders.

As Macbeth and his Lady, Michael Nardone and Kirsty Besterman give solid enough performances in the principal roles. The subdued nature of the production does not allow much scope for dramatic contrast or dynamic action. The "Tomorrow and Tomorrow" speech is interrupted halfway through by a change of scene when the concrete bunker is revolved to display the post-suicide body of Lady Macbeth with blood splattered over the walls. A poetic speech of universal philosophical significance is undermined by the emphasis on personal grief. And it’s not as if Macbeth hasn’t said, "She should have died hereafter/ There would have been a time for such a word."

There are strong performances in some of the minor roles. Brad Morrison is a convincing murderer; Deka Walmesley is full-voiced as the Porter; and Rachel Sanders is a tower of strength as Ross and in other parts.

This is a brave production which takes risks and certainly does draw strong parallels between Macbeth’s world and our current experience of brutal wars, massacres, bombardment of cities, civilian deaths and ecological disasters. But at a cost to the greater complexity of Shakespeare’s play and the beauty of its language.

Reviewer: Velda Harris

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