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Review of Macbeth at the Olivier Theatre – National Theatre

Macbeth Royal National Theatre London - Credit Brinkhoff/Mögenburg
Macbeth: Royal National Theatre London – Credit Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Once again Shakespeare has come into my life. This time it is the turn of ‘The Scottish Play’ to be given a makeover and presented in a new format to the theatregoing public. So, off I go to the South Bank and the National Theatre to see Macbeth.

In the wilds of Scotland, three witches (Hannah Hutch, Anna-Maria Nabirye and Beatrice Scirocchi) are preparing mischief. They meet with Macbeth (Rory Kinnear), Thane (Duke) of Glamis and his bosom friend Banquo (Kevin Harvey). Hailing Macbeth first they tell him that he shall be “Thane of Cawdor,” and “be King hereafter”. When Banquo asks for a prophecy for himself, the witches answer “that he will be less than Macbeth, yet happier, less successful, yet more. He will father a line of kings though he himself will not be one.” the witches disappear and another Thane runs in declaring that King Duncan (Stephen Boxer) has declared Macbeth to be Thane of Cawdor, confirming the first of the witches prophecies. Shocked, Macbeth goes to greet the king who decides he will honour the Macbeths by spending the night in his castle. Macbeth writes to his wife (Anne-Marie Duff) and informs her of everything that has happened up to the King’s decision to visit. Together, the two Macbeth’s conspire to make the second part of the prophecy come true.

Macbeth is quite a complicated play that mixes history and magic to produce a very atmospheric story. At the end, there is a real cause and effect conundrum as the story leaves the audience wondering if the prophecies came true as the witches had magical powers or did they come true because the witches suggested them to Macbeth? Personally I wouldn’t like to guess but ultimately Macbeth is, for me, one of the strongest of all Shakespeare’s tragedies.

Unfortunately, this production didn’t really hit the spot for me. First there were the elements that were omitted. For example, “Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.” which is not only an iconic scene but, as it is written in trochaic tetrameter, it acts as a warning to both the audience and Macbeth that there is major trouble ahead. The other issue is that all of the comedy seems to have disappeared. Yes, Macbeth is a tragedy but there were various comedic elements – such as when the Porter opens the castle gate to Lennox and Macduff – which just seemed to have lost their humour. On one of the few occasions that the audience really laughed, it felt to me that they were doing so for the wrong reason. It was less about the Porter’s (Trevor Fox) words and more about the fact he had a Northeastern accent quite at odds to the rest of the cast.

The staging of the play was fascinating and very complex with black being the predominant colour in Rae Smith’s set, dominated by a steeply sloped ramp that looked like a health and safety nightmare as actors came running down it towards the audience. And I have to say, there are way too many bin bags for my liking. Moritz Junge’s costumes feel as if they have been pretty much lifted from a Mad Max movie and the whole effect is one of grunge and paramilitary simplicity rather than the beauty of the highlands and Macbeth’s castle being a homely place in which to rest. Director Rufus Norris really keeps his cast moving. There is a lot of running around the vast stage area, and there are some nice touches – its not often an audience gets to see a beheading performed on stage.

Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff are splendid as the two leads, particularly Anne-Marie who’s Lady Macbeth goes from dominant, power driven, would-be queen to shambling sleepwalking, broken woman in fine style. Kevin Harvey as Banquo, and Patrick O’Kane as Macduff are also worth a mention. Kevin in particular really makes the most of his ghost scenes looking very grim and understandably scaring the bejesus out of Macbeth. The problem is that the characters don’t really feel connected to each other. Even Macbeth and his wife seem right from the start to have a distance between them that feels at odds with the story.

Overall, Macbeth is a fascinating story of the desire for power and its all-pervading corruption of the soul. Whilst most of the elements to the story are present in this production, I’m afraid that it really didn’t work for me. A very talented cast did the best they could but the production itself felt wrong on many levels and left me disappointed feeling that a real opportunity had been missed.

3 Star Review

Review by Terry Eastham

The ruined aftermath of a bloody civil war. Ruthlessly fighting to survive, the Macbeths are propelled towards the crown by forces of elemental darkness.

Shakespeare’s most intense and terrifying tragedy is directed by Rufus Norris. Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff play Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

Macbeth will be broadcast to cinemas by National Theatre Live on Thursday 10 May.

Macbeth will embark on a UK & Ireland Tour from September 2018
Tickets on sale soon

by William Shakespeare
Running Time: Approx. 2 hours 55 mins with an interval
Olivier Theatre


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