A year ago, in March 2018, Rufus Norris’ changed but unchanged Macbeth, set in today’s time but after an undisclosed civil war, opened in the National Theatre’s Olivier Theatre and it is now making its way around the UK on tour. I was lucky to be invited to see the production at the Wales Millennium Centre which marks the first time I’ve seen a theatrical production of Macbeth live. As an English Literature student Macbeth as a text has cropped up quite a few times, but I’ve never really gone in-depth in studying it so seeing an interpretation of a general tale I knew was a fascinating prospect. Due to this-this review will mostly focus on this individual production but will also include examinations of certain aspects of staging concerning the play’s narrative and I will also be critiquing the script of the play as it fits into the production of a play today.
Michael Nardone portrays a very level, Macbeth. In remaining the man beneath the emotional shifts from ambition, to fear and finally to a form of madness these shifts are harder to see but the character remains. It feels that rather than seeing the journey through one man’s psyche you are instead seeing the final episode of a man’s life play out before you. This is a vital decision that must be made by any production of Macbeth and, personally, this feels like the right call for this particular production. While this is not a broader political or national view of Macbeth compared to what it could be it is far more interpersonal so a relatively more full scope regarding Macbeth’s livelihood and life, rather than entrapping the audience alongside Macbeth himself within his mind, is certainly welcomed. This interpersonal shift is also reflected in the staging, as there is no attempt to pretend to an army on a vast scale in the conclusion and instead the ensemble of lards is used to show the exact nature of the political alliance shifts, and harks back to the script itself, as the only scene in England dedicated initially to planning the war instead shifts to a tragic personal revelation.
While Macbeth is a play often dominated both within and outside of the play by the male lords and kings which populate it this production certainly highlighted the engaging and intriguing roles for woman relatively hidden within the play script. Of course, the first of these needs no introduction and is famous in her own right. Kirsty Besterman’s Lady Macbeth was intriguing from the first word spoken, but this was as equally on the part of Besterman’s portrayal rather than exclusively the fame of her role. In fact, in my experience, it felt that Besterman’s position within the play amounted very much to fighting against what relatively little Lady Macbeth is given on which to build a show-stealing performance. Her dialogue within the script, especially in Act One, feels as if it is continually developing to something more which ultimately never truly comes. In a reflection of her character Besterman ensures to run with precisely what she has got and stays true to this feeling of building. She guarantees to balance an endorsement of Nardone’s Macbeth without using the scene to overpower her fellow actor. In this production, Besterman displays a masterclass is remaining true to the original play script rather than dominating particular scenes only to live up to the overwhelming reputation of the character rather than necessarily the role.
The relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in this production is a relatively loving and realist one of a married couple. However, the shadow of a baron relationship indeed hangs over them even during their early conversations. It is also interesting to note that the cracks in their relationship are far more individualised relating to, rather than contrasting ambitions, his madness and the two different methods by which the two would secure their thrones. This is emphasised in one of my favourite staging moments of this production at the close of act one as Lady Macbeth is finally able to show her frustrations as Macbeth calls for the witches. The staging of these two moments individually and yet together is exciting. This is also intriguing alongside the specific choice of ghosts within this production. For example, in one particular scene, the doctor remains on stage almost hanging over Macbeth as if he is also a ghost. This is primarily in the case of a production which shows the ghosts with a relative solidity in contrast to the invisible dagger. Speaking of ghost anyone with a long-time interest in Macbeth will be very interested in this production’s choice to give Lady Macbeth her own ghost.
In terms of the other female actors, I was also very drawn to Rachel Sanders as Ross and Lisa Zahra as Lady Macduff. As soon as Sanders steps on to the stage, she is an immediately recognisable character who the audience use as a bedrock during multiple scenes. To see her calculating speculation during high-pressure scenes and emotions come through precisely at the right moments to show the impact of particular actions was both powerful to watch and also aided in the accessible nature of the play script. Zahra gives an emotionally invoking haunting role as Lady Macduff and certainly brings the character up with her abilities to have equal footing with many of the lords and even Lady Macbeth.
This production very heavily prioritises the theme of motherhood and paternal ability above all other topics associated with Macbeth and the man himself. Also, perhaps intentionally, this ensures that the absence of the dramatic fulfilment of the prophecy relating to Banquo’s children is very impactful. This absence refers to the history of the play and the time in which it was written which is disclosed in the programme, however, the conflict between Macbeth and Macduff, especially in the isolated theme of all of the final battles, highlights not only the continuation of the subject of motherhood but also the isolation of two solitary men with no families to continue from them.
The witches are always a heightened point of interest in any production of Macbeth. In this production, they are kept at once both traditionally witch-like in their echoing voices and unkempt hair but also fresh and ingenious. The poles which they climb are beguiling, but they do not overpower the meaning of what they say. They are very shadowy not even looking at those they address let alone showing any personal extension in creating the visions with which they enthral. However, and this is going to be indicative of my English Literature brain, the witches are especially interesting for their costumes of plastic shrouds which reflect directly the plastic of the bags used to store the various severed heads throughout the narrative which introduces, from the two opening scenes, multiple moments of mirroring throughout the show.
Similarly to the witches, I was most intrigued to see the workings of Rae Smith’s set design alongside Paul Pyant’s lighting design. The backing set and the bridge aspects are utterly beautiful in the combination of the set and lighting and are utterly striking. They harken back to the dark and foreboding setting of Scotland, and it would fit for almost any setting of Macbeth, but especially the backdrop of the castles and grand houses thought of in the original productions and many productions trying to harken back to this original. However, in this production, we have something slightly different. In the setting of ‘now, after a civil war,’ the domestic living spaces shift from the castles and grand houses into apocalypse bunker like dwellings. The bunkers still worked well within the overall setting and they certainly aided in shifting the setting to one far more claustrophobic to emphasise the staring lords in Macbeth’s startled maddening expressions towards Banquo’s ghost.
My main issue with this production was the seemingly relatively simple lack of majorly dramatic individual moments. There were many opportunities for spectacular staging to heighten these moments, such as the death of Duncan for example and the final battle, to powerfully memorable episodes within the narrative. While this does aid the moments to be stitched together in a flowing story, it is an interesting choice for a play which proves to be memorable more due to individualised moments. In the case of the staging, this did also result in the loss of some vital information. This is especially the case for the final revelation which is lost amongst the struggle between the two men rather than being staged as a revelation for the audience to take particular notice of. Overall many moments in the show required the dialogue, performances and the powerful staging to come together to give the adequate power to the emotions already being portrayed to allow the audience to take notice and remember the precise feeling.
Overall, I’m going to give the National Theatre’s touring production of Macbeth three out of five stars due to the excellent performances and staging directly not translating into those impactful dramatic moments which prove to be memorable long after the play. However, I would still recommend this production as an excellent production of the Scottish Play especially in the case of the presentation of the witches and the women of the play who hold their heads high amongst the trails of the narrative.
Macbeth is running at the Wales Millennium Centre until March 23rd and it will then continue on tour. You can book tickets through the WMC here.