Macbeth is Shakespeare’s shortest and sharpest tragedy. As a portrait of a couple’s quest for power that ultimately drives them apart, leaving one haunted by the deed that cannot be undone, and the other fixated on a prophecy on which he sets so much store, the play demonstrates Shakespeare’s mastery of the tightly-coiled thriller.
What a pity, therefore, that Rufus Norris’s production of Macbeth fails to fulfil the promise shown by Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff in 2016, when they performed an extract from the play at Shakespeare Live! From the RSC, the celebratory evening that marked the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. The scene, which follows the murder of Duncan by Macbeth, was one of the event’s highlights and indeed remained the stand-out moment in Norris’s otherwise muddled production. This featured an incoherent concept and some of the most lacklustre fight choreography ever witnessed in a Shakespeare production.
However, there is much to admire about Norris’s production. Firstly, textual advisor and editor, Paul Prescott, delivers a fine cut of the script, amalgamating characters to shrink the world of Shakespeare’s play and concentrate Macbeth’s inner-circle into something small and tightly wound. The set design also enhanced the sense of claustrophobia, with rippling black bin bags hung from the ceiling, often slowly descending like an eerie combination of a fright of ghosts and an oil spill to create a DIY Gothic aesthetic which delivered an unsettling atmosphere more effectively than most of the actors did.
“The type of heavy-handed staging convention that would not have felt out of place in a GCSE Drama production”
Whilst the two leads comfortably outshone their cast-mates and worked effectively together, Anne-Marie Duff is easily the production’s stand-out performer, delivering a very different Lady Macbeth from the one to which audiences are traditionally accustomed. Rather than a dark-haired, Machiavellian force of nature – such as Kate Fleetwood’s brilliant turn in Rupert Goold’s 2007 production – Duff’s performance was full of melancholy. From the first scene, her slender frame, wispy white-blonde hair and palpable sense of distress and desperation cast her Lady Macbeth as a fragile figure, broken even before the events of the play have begun, rather than as one who crumbles in the course of the play’s events.
Having shone on this very stage in his award-winning rôle as Iago in Nicholas Hytner’s 2013 production of Othello, Rory Kinnear’s Macbeth promised much, but failed to consistently deliver the psychological complexity, fragility and ferocity the character demands. For one who has developed a reputation as one of Britain’s best dramatic actors, it is notable that Kinnear’s best moments are where he lends lighter, comedic brushstrokes to an otherwise generic portrait of the character. For instance, during the Act 2 Scene 3 exchange between Macbeth and Lennox (an old man) Kinnear got an audible laugh from the audience on his line ‘twas a rough night’, which follows a lengthy, rambling speech by Lennox about the events immediately following King Duncan’s death. He delivered this pithy punchline with impeccable comic timing and with the same blokeish insincerity which made him such a formidable Iago.
Kinnear was at his best when sharing the stage with Duff or dealing with these lighter, conversational scenes. His monologues, on the other hand, were uniformly delivered and self-consciously mannered, with a tendency for him to step into the soliloquies and gesticulate with a progressively irritating finger-waggle. Kinnear failed in the role as the fixed point around which the narrative pivots, bringing none of the stillness or seething inner-rage which have made Patrick Stewart and Michael Fassbender such brilliant Macbeths in recent years. This was not helped by Norris’s, frankly, baffling decision to have all the other actors ‘freeze’ whenever Kinnear directly addressed the audience, as though hammering home the point that, when a Shakespeare character speaks to us, the other characters can’t hear them. It was the type of heavy-handed staging convention that would not have felt out of place in a GCSE Drama production of Macbeth and was indicative of a wider set of problems with Norris’s production.
Indeed, the blame for this production’s biggest failures lie squarely with its director. The programme notes indicate that the play’s setting is ‘now, after a civil war’ but the nature of this civil war is never made clear. The production fell into the now-familiar traps of what I would call ‘Khaki Shakespeare’; productions where the plays are transposed into a vaguely dystopian, military context that incongruously combines modern dress with archaic weaponry. Norris set his Macbeth in this modern space without managing to make any discernible point about why the play’s themes of coupledom, power and ambition continue to resonate with audiences four-hundred years after it was first performed. It was a far cry from Justin Kurzel’s visceral 2015 film adaptation, which was set in 11th century Scotland, and still succeeded in analysing post-traumatic stress disorder through the lens of Fassbender’s haunted Macbeth. In Norris’s version, the soldiers wore modern combat gear and khakis, but carried swords instead of guns. Indeed, the costuming was a particularly confusing aspect of the production; an eclectic mélange of primary colours, muddy browns and distressed fabrics, whereas the king, for reasons unspecified, was required to wear an all-red suit and shoes: more Little Richard than regicide.
“Shakespeare’s masterclass in the art of brevity should not feel this long or pedestrian”
Despite the play’s unsettling backdrop of bin bags – a trick reminiscent of the Old Vic’s 2016 set design for King Lear – Norris also made poor use of the Olivier Theatre’s deep and gargantuan stage. Too often, the action was played at a distance from the audience which, rather than lending it epic sweep and grandeur, decreased the claustrophobic atmosphere and made it easy to lose concentration. Conversely, the chilling intensity and desperation with which Kinnear and Duff portrayed Act 2 Scene 2, as they agonise over what to do with the bloodied knives after Duncan’s murder, was the production’s finest moment, being set far downstage and in the very lap of the audience, with Kinnear and Duff crammed together in front of their small house. The claustrophobia was palpable and, for a moment, there was a hint of where this production might have gone had Norris kept things smaller and more self-contained.
On the whole, this Macbeth feels like a missed opportunity. The National Theatre’s artistic director, paired with two pedigree performers who have previous experience with the play, was, in theory, a recipe for success. While the production has its positives – Duff, in particular – Shakespeare’s masterclass in the art of brevity should not feel this long or pedestrian. At its best, the play should leave tooth marks on its audience, who share Macbeth’s trauma as he reflects that ‘life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour on the stage / And then is heard no more’. In this toothless production, there was too much strutting and not enough fretting about how to inject Macbeth with anything fresh to say.
Image: Brinkhoff Mögenburg