William Shakespeare
National Theatre
The Lyric, Theatre Royal Plymouth

Olivia Sweeney (Gentlewoman), Kirsty Besterman (Lady Macbeth) and Reuben Johnson (Doctor) Credit: BrinkhoffMogenburg
The cast of the UK and Ireland tour of the NTs Macbeth Credit: BrinkhoffMogenburg

‘Fraid I’m not a fan.

Rufus Norris directs a dark and disturbing piece set in a broken dystopian 21st century Scotland where Macbeth’s castle is a putrid post-apocalyptic bunker and the coveted throne a plastic-swathed flimsy utility chair.

Costumes are dead man’s shoes and mismatched rubbish heap pickings with cobbled-together scavenged armour duct-taped into place while Rae Smith’s atmospheric set is a masterpiece of grunge and gloom: a tattered bin-liner backdrop dominated by a towering ramp swooping from the impenetrable black above to the bleakness of the grime below.

Opening with the (very) Weird Sisters clearly up the pole and a violent beheading, the Mad Maxesque scene is quickly set but all piqued interest is, unfortunately, swiftly undermined by some very wooden ‘stand and deliver’ pieces in Scottish accents of varying success and durability; some main characters fluffing their lines and a prevailing dearth of charisma (save for Rachel Sanders as Ross). Not to mention the questionable jarring moments (such as the inept wellie-wearing doctor, Banquo’s ghost with in-tact throat, light switches outside buildings, night-time crickets and Macbeth wandering through the back wall of Malcolm’s bedroom) serving to divert attention from any investment in brooding horrors.

With little chemistry between them and with the civil war conceit, the motivation for the childless Macbeths’ (Michael Nardone and Kirsty Besterman) thirst for power becomes lost. Wiping out the whole lineage of potential usurpers seemingly becomes pure malevolence of the Pol Pot variety rather than a greed for familial supremacy.

There is violence aplenty, bags of body parts (literally), plucked foetuses and set pieces as blood red-clad nightmarish armies advance—reminiscent no doubt of countless Xbox games—but the ponderous piece fails to capture becoming monotonous with unconvincing lumbering fights and plenty of carefully planned standing about.

Shakespeare's difficult but oh so evocative speeches lose context and thrust, and, save for Sanders and occasional flashes of brilliance from Ross Waiton as family-abandoning Macduff, there is little other than routine to report.

Disappointing but hopefully the new cast will warm up and become more cohesive as the tour develops.

Reviewer: Karen Bussell