Macbeth (3)

National TheatreI’m afraid this production has been widely panned by the critics (there’s a handy round-up here) and my comments are not massively going to buck the trend. And even worse, this is likely to be a kitchen sink review – throwing as many different thoughts together as the production team apparently did…


Photo by Brinkhoff and Moegenburg

I’m going to try and start with the good (I promise there was some!)The cast, as I would expect from the National Theatre, were extremely talented. Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff do not need my tuppence worth to gild their acting laurels – but nonetheless I’m going to, at least a little. It is a delight to hear Kinnear speaking – clear and sharp and grounded in a precise understanding of the text. There were a few odd choices about long breaks in the lines – really long breaks, that broke up the rhythms, like

“Hear it not, Duncan, for it is a knell

That summons thee to heaven…………………………………………………………………………. or to hell.”

Or “How now… you secret, black, and midnight hags?” – the gap in that one was the interval. But one gap which really worked allowed Kinnear to address at least part of the “tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech to Duff’s bleeding body – the love of their marriage shining through one last time, with the most tenderness we had seen. Duff’s Lady Macbeth was smoother, more lyrical – without the deep visceral shaking fear that made Macbeth all breaks and clipped lines and hesitation, but with much less understanding of what she was about and much more real shock in the moment. She conducted her sleepwalking scene with the manner of someone who finally realised what she had done, and in a splendidly sensible pair of pyjamas, for which much thanks to Moritz Junge the costume designer.Talking of costumes – the kingship was signified by a succession of red suits – simple but effective as the rest of the cast was in various drab outfits – often involving bulky coats which alas did little for the physicality of the cast (Kinnear’s performance seemed markedly better when he wasn’t in gaffer-taped armour). It also led to one of the most genuinely eerie spectacles as the line of kings from Banquo appeared, faces and jackets on backwards, to give a jarring, unnatural gait as they walked across the stage. Unfortunately the rest of the witches appearances were cut to shreds – giggling and weird they definitely were, but all of their lines which didn’t directly relate to Macbeth had been cut, turning them from malevolent presence clearly playing with the Scots for their own pleasure to mere plot-supporting cyphers.*

Trevor Fox’s ragtag Porter took on various of the assorted “old man” roles – giving him a sort of omnipresence that (combined with his onstage presence for the murder of Duncan) lent a knowing air to the “knock knock” speech and a quiet desperation to his encounters with Ross and Macduff. Patrick O’Kane’s Macduff was at his best playing off of Parth Thakerer’s intelligent and righteous Malcolm (although again they cut all the funny bits where Malcolm pretends to be a bad boy) – his lines when Ross announces the death of his wife spoke wonderfully of a grief so large it couldn’t be comprehended. Kevin Harvey was a wonderfully gentle Banquo, especially with Fleance (mind you, so was Macbeth – and it was horrific to see him squaring himself up to have the child murdered). Stephen Boxer’s Duncan was affable and lordly, even if it did seem a bit odd that all of his court were apparently military men (even though Macbeth and Banquo are the only two we know who fight against the Norwegians) – the military whooping and banging was a bit much, although the whistling was an effective way to pass attention across the expanse of the National’s stage.

Speaking of which – the set was terribly dystopian – all concrete bunkers** and seaweedy binbag curtains, with a large sweeping fin that cut the space in two and seemed almost constantly on the move – as did the cast, which did not make for restful monologues or improve understanding of their speeches. And there were various poles that various characters climbed at various points – I’m not sure they added much apart from proving the acrobatic prowess of the cast. Orlando Gough’s music ably played by Sarah Homer and Laetitia Stott, on the hand, added superbly to the atmosphere.

The only people who didn’t fit this nondescript setting were the two murderers – Joshua Lacey and Alana Ramsey – a pair of stereotypical neds with thick accents and a love of booze (and possibly less legal substances) who, unusually, did not both survive the encounter with Banquo and Fleance – about the only moment of freshness the production had to offer.

I am perhaps a little over dystopias (dystopiae? God, that’s a depressing thing to think about in the plural). Actually, that’s a lie. I am massively over dystopiae, particularly for Macbeth. I want a fall, not continuing depths. I want a rich and beautiful country – a rich and beautiful court – that slowly turns to ashes and murder. I was surprised on listening how much religious sensibility there is in Macbeth (alongside the superstition) – combine it with my recent visit to the Vatican and I’d love a gorgeously vibrant medieval world, a claustrophobic cabinet drama where the Macbeths overstep themselves and come crashing down.

I admire the immense effort that every person involved must have put into this production, Nothing was skimped. But I couldn’t understand to what end it has been put – like a broken engine, all that energy producing no output. I couldn’t tell you why Rufus Norris had chosen to produce Macbeth***, what he wanted to say about the story. Did he not have a clear vision, or did he fail to screw his courage to the sticking-place?

* You can’t really describe them as passing the Bechdel test when their names are apparently “First Witch”, “Second Witch” and “Third Witch”, but Shakespeare clearly gave them agency and they do talk about something other than men…

** Rather making a mockery of Duncan’s line “This castle hath a pleasant seat”…

*** Except cynically to speculate that it was on the GCSE syllabus – there were at least two school groups in on the night I was there.


7 thoughts on “Macbeth (3)

  1. Westville13

    You might also have mentioned the constant unnecessary fiddling with the text – for example (Act 1) “How far is called to Dunsinane” (not Forres) which messes with both geography and metre, and the replacement of “kerns and gallowglasses” with some more modern wording about mercenaries – factually accurate but it smells of the whole Globe/dandelion/”Shakespeare is too difficult for modern audiences to understand” insulting line of argument and was in any case made nonsense of by the inclusion of “kerns” unaltered in a subsequent speech. Cut by all means. Knit up the ravelled sleeve of text and metre if you have to. But meaningless and useless tweaks are just insulting to the audience (and yes I did the whole unaltered text of Macbeth for O-level).


  2. i personally didn’t rate this performance at all – super gutted because i LOVE the national, LOVE macbeth, LOVE shakespeare for flip sake but i genuinely was sent to sleep. too dark and too intimate for such a large space. i found that kinnear was also very staccato in terms of his speech pattern. yeeeee. was a no from me


    • It’s interesting, I’ve been to three Macbeths so far, and I’m not sure I’d say any of them have got it right! I’m going to see the RSC version with Christopher Ecclestone when it comes to London in the autumn, so I’ll see if that’s any better. Have you been to any productions you have particularly enjoyed?


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