Macbeth – May 2018

Experience: 6/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Rufus Norris

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Tuesday 1st May 2018

We had read a few snippets about this production, as well as hearing comments from several friends, so we kept our expectations low when we took our seats for this performance. And as so often happens, that helped us to enjoy the good bits of this performance while not being distracted too much by the rubbish stuff, and when I say ‘rubbish’, you can take that literally. When the National wants to show the excesses of our materialistic, throwaway society, as in the Simon Russell Beale Timon several years ago, they do it in style. Well, there’s a lot of the Olivier stage to fill with something – might as well be bin bags.

To be fair, this was a futuristic (I hope) dystopian view of the world, so detritus seemed to be the only thing available to the characters, for the most part. They certainly didn’t have enough money for lights, since the gloom at the start carried through most of the play – hopefully the EU can be persuaded not to make this the norm for all productions. We could just make out a large ramp sweeping up from the stage to the ‘wall’ across the middle of the stage, roughly in the centre. There were poles rising up from the ramp, and they seemed to have cloth rags dangling from the top. There was also an entrance at the top and another wide gap in the wall on the left. I couldn’t see what the ‘wall’ was made of – it had a rough, textured look which made me think of trees – but later on I realised it was made of raggedy, swagged curtains. These, and the ramp, moved round to create different spaces, and there were other bits of wall and furniture brought on as needed – I’ll get to those in due course.

To start us off, a man ran down the ramp, pursued by others: he was caught, and with a bit of trickery – a hole opened in the ramp – his head was cut off and put in a plastic bag, which Macbeth – the gloom had lifted just enough for me to vaguely identify Rory Kinnear – hung on one of the poles. The body was left on the ramp, and disposed of at some point by being lowered through the hole by other actors. The music which accompanied this action was as gloomy as the lighting, and if I wasn’t familiar with the story I would have been completely lost.

Then came the witches. One of them walked slowly down the ramp while another one ran around a lot making squealing, trilling noises: the noises were quite effective, I thought, the running around less so. They pushed the ramp round to the left so that Duncan (Stephen Boxer) could enter on the right wearing an immaculate red suit with a red great coat over his shoulders, accompanied by several soldiers. Another man ran down the ramp and was caught, but this was Macduff, the “bloody man”, which is a neat way of getting that character into our awareness early on. They had to change some of the lines, and I noticed that Macduff (Patrick O’Kane) was interrupted by another messenger after his “Yes” in response to Duncan’s “Dismayed not this our captains, Macbeth and Banquo?”, so we didn’t get to hear the animal comparisons which completely change the meaning of that “yes” – strange choice.

The messenger who brought the good news was Rosse (Penny Layden) – the female version – although I don’t think we were introduced at the time. When she announced the victory, she drew a yellow flag out of her bag and spread it out to show them – presumably their opponent’s captured standard. While the King’s party was celebrating, they moved the ramp back round to the right for the next scene – so helpful.

Macbeth (Rory Kinnear) and Banquo (Kevin Harvey) walked down the ramp as the witches gradually emerged. One came out from under the ramp as it moved (the trilling one), another came on from the back and I’m not sure how the third one came on stage – it was still pretty gloomy. Macbeth fell as he got to the bottom of the ramp, and it appeared that the hole down which the earlier ‘body’ had gone hadn’t been reset: that won’t be happening again. Fortunately, Macbeth seemed OK, so the scene carried on as normal.

Macbeth was on stage with the witches when they spoke to him, bowing with each title. Banquo followed on a bit later, and seemed completely immune to any spooky atmosphere, talking cheerfully in his Scouse accent as if they were just on their way to the pub on a lovely sunny afternoon. Fair enough, the two men have different attitudes, but this felt like a clash of styles to me. The human messengers gave Macbeth one of his new titles, and when all four formed a group to celebrate, Macbeth pulled away from the group for his soliloquy: he was lit while the others stayed frozen in relative darkness, coming out of that pose when they had lines. This was the format for all of the soliloquys, and it worked very well. I didn’t care for the slow music which rather obscured his lines at this point, but it seems to be increasingly obligatory now, just as on television. I thought Rory’s delivery was a bit stilted at this point, and some of his movements seemed jerky,  a bit like those robotic actions which people do, but I wasn’t sure.

The ramp was moved back round to the left for the next scene, allowing Duncan and his court to set up on the right. Duncan had a nice chair, although it was covered in plastic, presumably to keep it clean on the battlefield. Another sheet of plastic covered the wide hanging rail set up at the back, on which Duncan’s coat was hung, also covered in post-dry-cleaning plastic. When Macbeth arrived, his left hand was in a bandage and supported by a sling, so either he’d been wounded in the battle, or the hole in the ramp had taken its toll. [10/5/18 Yesterday, Steve spotted insert slips for programs informing the audience that “due to the indisposition of Rory Kinnear…”. Same problem?] I noticed that Macbeth and Banquo used floor-touching as a sign of respect to Duncan, which worked fine for me. I felt they underplayed Duncan’s choice of Malcolm (Parth Thakerar) to be his heir, in terms of the various reactions, and again they froze the action for Macbeth’s aside to the audience.

While Duncan and his party headed off after Macbeth, the revolve swung round to bring a room onto the stage: the ramp was moved to the far right. This room only had two walls and was raised up on a platform. With the walls facing us at first, we could only see Lady Macbeth (Anne-Marie Duff) perched on the corner of the platform, and she gave us her opening speech from there. Again, the movement was a bit of a distraction at first, but then we had a prime view as her perch came front and centre. She delivered the lines OK, and her concern about Macbeth’s “milk of human kindness” was clear.

By this time we could see the inside of the room. There were two concrete walls, one with a narrow horizontal slit for a window and the other with an opening instead of a door. The floor was bare, and apart from the two metal chairs, the couple’s belongings were piled against the walls. It looked pretty bleak, and more like a refugee camp than the home of one of Scotland’s finest military captains. Lady Macbeth herself was in scruffy modern gear in drab colours, possibly her husband’s hand-me-downs. She did have a good pair of boots though.

The Geordie servant (Trevor Fox) who announced the king’s arrival was also the porter and Seyton, a nice blending of characters. Lady Macbeth laughed for a bit at first, then realised he was serious and declared “thou’rt mad to say it”. The sudden prospect of actually being able to kill Duncan took Lady Macbeth by surprise, so her invocation of dark forces was hesitant to begin with, but it got stronger as she went on. I noticed more of the jerky mechanical movements from her at this time, so perhaps it was a motif.

As she was finishing this off, Macbeth came down the ramp and round to the door, leaning against the door frame for a bit and just looking at her. She smiled at him, and then he came over and they embraced, kissing enthusiastically. It looked like they might take a break for something more physical, but they stopped in good time. He hung up his machete – the weapon of choice for soldiers in this world – and she got a sharp knife to cut off his ‘armour’. His breastplate, which had looked odd to me earlier, turned out to be some kind of padding which was fastened with packaging tape. I found this yet another distraction from the dialogue.

Duncan arrived with his followers, and I think they cut most of the lines, as they really wouldn’t play well in this setting. Trumpets sounded and the room moved round to the right while others placed tables and chairs on the left hand side of the stage. Lady Macbeth put on her best green coat, the one with the frayed hem, to greet the king and I noticed that Rosse had the yellow flag draped round her shoulders. Some lights were strung up, a small generator was brought on and started, and everyone cheered – party time!

Macbeth was sitting on one of the tables when the action froze for “If ‘twere done…”, moving over to the free area during the speech. The revolve began to turn back round on “and pity”, so that Lady Macbeth found her husband by the side of their room, with the (silent) party still going on back right. “I have given suck…” was difficult for her. She put her hands on her breast, and seemed to be reliving the loss of her own child or children: Macbeth was also affected by her speech, holding his hands out to her as if to comfort or possibly stop her. This was a painful subject for them both, and one they shared, which made her assertion about killing a child seem more potent.

The party started back up again once the Macbeths were agreed on their course of action, and was very noisy for a while. The room swivelled back round, and a wall was put up in front of the front table – it had two large windows in it with Venetian blinds. Gradually the partygoers slipped away to bed, leaving Duncan asleep on the front table, now partly obscured by the wall and blinds, and his guards with their heads down on the other tables at the back.

A large cardboard box came scurrying on at this point, making us laugh. It turned out to contain Fleance (Rakhee Sharma) – female – and after falling over she climbed out of the box for the conversation with her father. Macbeth came out of his room to join them, and I noticed that Banquo paused before “weird sisters”, suggesting that he’d been going to say “witches”, but thought better of it with Fleance around. As he left, Macbeth sent the porter to Lady Macbeth with a message, and then went into the dagger speech. This was delivered well, and led us nicely into the murder scene.

The revolve was in action again, and we could see that the porter was asleep under the floor of the Macbeth’s room. Macbeth went round to the area on the left, where Duncan was asleep on the table, and closed the blinds to cover his actions. Lady Macbeth came on after this, and was suitably edgy. When Macbeth joined her, he had wrapped the daggers in a cloth, which is why she didn’t discover them until she took the cloth to help him clean off his hands. She had to psyche herself up to go back into the room with the daggers, but she managed it.

Macbeth had taken off his bloody T-shirt and his socks when he first came back on stage, and although his wife grabbed the T-shirt when they left, the socks remained on the stage – an error or deliberate? We soon found out. The porter was finally wakened by the loud knocking and came out from under the Macbeth’s bedroom floor to answer it. Or rather, not answer it, as he spent quite some time over his lines before MacDuff and Lennox (Nicholas Karimi) entered. He peered in at Duncan’s dead body through the window, and pointed towards the Macbeths’ room, before picking up the sock, when he was talking about the “equivocator”. He also wiped the chair with the sock briefly before Lennox and Macduff came in, presumably removing evidence, although it was hard to tell. His manner was extremely stroppy, and he snarled the lines which made it one of the most unfunny porters that we’ve seen. It was as if he was railing against the murder of Duncan, but unwilling to expose his employer – none of this was supported by the lines he was saying, and the mismatch made for a very weird scene, as well as undercutting the subsequent dialogue with MacDuff and Lennox.

The set must have moved round again, because MacDuff went off to the right to check on Duncan. Macbeth’s “it was a rough night” was seriously underplayed, getting only a slight rumble of laughter. MacDuff was suspicious of Macbeth from the start, and Lady Macbeth’s call for help was a judiciously timed intervention. The walls were removed to reveal Duncan’s body, and Malcolm, again without his brother’s company, knelt by the body as he spoke his lines.

The next scene was significantly altered from the regular version. MacDuff was speaking with a woman in a lovely furry robe, and judging by the way she gave him his coat as he left, I decided this must be Lady Macduff (Amaka Okafor). The lines that were left still gave us the information we needed, and did at least show that husband and wife were going in different directions, as well as giving us an early sight of the lady, and the actress more lines. I still wasn’t happy with the strange combination of spartan modern dress with opulent, slightly dated costumes: why would Lady Macduff be dressed so well compared to the Macbeths, for instance?

Banquo was the next one on, and he seemed more cheerful at the prospect of his children being kings than disturbed by the possibility that Macbeth had committed murder to get his crown. The new king and queen followed him on from the left side, now more open, and this time they were dressed in fancy clothes: Macbeth was in a red suit, while Lady Macbeth wore a glittery red dress. Macbeth picked up Banquo’s bag and gave it to him as he was on the point of leaving: Banquo then joined Fleance up on the ramp where the girl had been waiting for him.

With everyone else sent about their business – Lady Macbeth assumed the order didn’t apply to her, and wasn’t happy to be sent away – the porter brought on the two murderers. The revolve was also in action, so that Macbeth’s discussion with the man (either Joshua Lacey or Andrew Frame) and woman (Alana Ramsey) was held in his former bedroom, which wasn’t much tidier or emptier than it had been before. While this meeting was in progress, we could see Lady Macbeth sitting disconsolately at one of the tables, which was now on the right hand side of the stage.

Macbeth gave the potential assassins a can of drink each – don’t know what it was meant to be, but they looked suspiciously like Irn Bru cans to me. No wonder the murderers were thrilled to be given them! I felt this was a weaker scene: the lines were delivered well enough, but I didn’t get much out of it. After the assassins left, the revolve kicked in again, and the table at which Lady Macbeth was still sitting came round front and centre. A wall with windows along it was behind the table, and the doorway was on the right. One of the witches was visible through the window for a short while, but Lady Macbeth had her back to the window at that point, so didn’t see her. She did see her husband when he came in, however, and this exchange between them was much stronger. Her desire to reassure him that they were fine, that everything was going well, was nicely counterpointed by our knowledge that Macbeth had already arranged for Banquo’s murder – boy, was she out of the loop! His invocation of the dark forces rattled her, giving her the first intimations that the situation was actually out of control now, and that her husband was beyond her influence.

Personally, I was fancying a break about now, but the servants began setting up the tables for the ‘feast’, though given that the place settings consisted of metal cups and ration tins I wasn’t expecting anything lavish. I think the guests arrived before the murder scene, and the revolve took the party round to the left while the porter and the two murderers came on to the space on the right. They didn’t “strike out the light”, so we had a decent view of the whole thing, although I didn’t spot Banquo’s body leaving the stage. Banquo and Fleance came down the ramp, the same route by which they had left earlier, and the porter grabbed Fleance while the other two tackled Banquo. Fleance broke free and Banquo told her to run which she did, getting away up the ramp. The male murderer was injured by Banquo, who put up a good fight, and while the porter left them, Macbeth came on to learn of their success. Or, in the case of Fleance, failure.

Having sorted that out, Macbeth rejoined the party, which was really getting going now. As the revolve brought the banqueting room back round, Lady Macbeth was standing on a chair looking pretty drunk and I think she was leading them in a song. As the lines went on, we could see Banquo through the window, staggering about like a zombie in the gloom of the rear stage, before coming to the window to be easily seen by Macbeth at the relevant moment. With Banquo still wandering about behind the room, Macbeth went out to challenge him, and Lady Macbeth went over to the waiting woman (Nadia Albina) who was standing by the doorway, and put her hand over her mouth. She may also have whispered something in her ear.

Banquo came round the front for the second visitation, causing Macbeth to throw over one of the tables, at which point he really had “displaced the mirth” and ruined the party. When Rosse asked “what sights, my lord?”, Lady Macbeth was quick to get everyone else out of the room, and after Macbeth left her alone, she collapsed against the table, showing the strain she was under. Interval.

For the restart, the ramp was back in its starting position. Macbeth came on at the top of the ramp, amid smoke and darkness, to meet with the three witches. One was at the bottom of the ramp, while the other two came out from under it. One witch brought on a head to show Macbeth, possibly MacDuff’s, as part of the warning. Then the two non-squeaky witches walked up the ramp dangling babies and dressed backwards, with clothes fastened at the back and fake heads which faced backwards too. It was a bit bizarre watching these ‘people’ walking the wrong way round. Then a whole lot of posts with rags on the top were carried on for the Birnam Wood prophecy. More people dressed backwards in red suits came on and up the ramp to represent Banquo’s descendants, with Banquo himself staggering about in the vicinity again. It wasn’t the clearest version of this scene I’ve watched, but I think it got the main points across OK.

The curtains came down to cover the ramp area, which had swung round to the right again, as the porter came on to let Macbeth know that MacDuff had fled to England. I noticed that the porter was looking more and more uncomfortable with Macbeth’s activities, so I wasn’t surprised to find that he was the one who gave Lady MacDuff her final warning to fly, though as usual he was much too late. But first off we saw Lady MacDuff with Rosse in a small but plush-looking room (compared to the Macbeth’s hovel from earlier). The younger MacDuff (played by a woman, Hannah Hutch) was hiding in the large suitcase in the middle of the floor, and came out of it carrying a sword. He/she then went and sat on the side wall with a teddy bear after Rosse took the sword back.

Lady MacDuff had clearly been planning to leave, judging by the suitcases and the piles of clothes. She tried to carry on packing after Rosse had left, but spent some time talking with her child first. Her anger at her husband was evident, as was her love for her child, but although she resumed her packing as fast as she could after the porter came on to warn her, the murderers arrived too quickly. The first was a new one, male (either Joshua Lacey or Andrew Frame), while the second was the woman from before who was carrying some bags with heads in them, presumably from the other MacDuff children. The remaining child ran to the man to attack him, but was stabbed, and then the revolve took them all away so we wouldn’t see the full nastiness of the situation.

Down in England, things were a bit better than in Scotland. Malcolm’s quarters had a wide chest, a sofa and a rug – no bin bags were visible. Strangely, Malcolm didn’t go so far in testing MacDuff as is usual: no assertions about his vice, voluptuousness, avarice and the rest. Maybe I missed the lines, but it seemed that a polite refusal on Malcolm’s part put MacDuff into such a deep frustration that he took out his sword and then tore up some paper. This temper tantrum apparently reassured Malcolm that all was well, and they became best buds. Weird. And weak.

Rosse was uncomfortable when answering MacDuff’s first set of questions about his family, and I felt there was no reason provided for her strange volte-face in this scene. One minute she’s assuring MacDuff they’re all well, then she plucks up the courage to tell him that, actually, they’re all dead. It’s a tough section to play, and this version was fair-to-middling.

With the opposition forces getting their act together, it was back to Dunsinane, where the waiting woman and the doctor (Michael Balogun) were on the look out for Lady Macbeth, whom we’d already seen prowling around the revolve carrying a lantern. They began in the traditional way, with Lady Macbeth coming centre front to do some hand washing movements – lots of scrubbing and lots of unhappy cries. This section was OK, though we definitely preferred the Katy Stephens version we’d seen earlier this year. There were additional noises from the squeaky witch before Lady Macbeth headed off to bed in the room at the back; there was no bed, so she knelt on the floor. The doctor remained on stage for a later scene.

Information about the English army came from Rosse and Lennox: he was halfway up a pole, presumably to get a better view. Macbeth then came on to receive the news about the English forces and to get an update from the doctor about his wife’s health. Banquo appeared on stage as Macbeth was asking what force was approaching, and was joined by Duncan, who lay down on the table where he had been murdered: it was noticeable that Macbeth was no longer scared by these apparitions. The porter brought on the sticky tape to help Macbeth get into his ‘armour’, and the ghosts left the stage when Macbeth did.

The invading army grouped itself on the ramp, where Malcolm made his suggestion about hacking Birnam Wood to pieces. Then the revolve brought round the Macbeth’s room again, to which Macbeth went after the waiting woman brought him news of his wife’s death. I found it moving to see him kneel down and roll her body over (on “out, out, brief candle”), cradling it for a while as he grieved.

The porter climbed a pole on the left of the stage, and then had to face Macbeth, who had left his wife’s body, with the news that Birnam Wood was indeed coming to Dunsinane. Macbeth wasn’t happy, but there was nothing to do but fight. The revolve moved round again, the witches had climbed up the three poles on the ramp, and I thought I saw Fleance, with a gun, chasing a man off stage. This was a battle scene, mind you, so things were naturally a bit confused.

Macbeth was doing a fair bit of killing, Macduff wasn’t holding back either and there were a few skirmishes going on here and there, just to give us a sense of the battle. Finally, the big two came together for the grudge match of the millennium. Macbeth was clearly the better fighter and got Macduff’s machete off him quite easily. He was affected by Macduff’s revelation, and Macduff was able to get hold of his machete again while Macbeth took in the reality of his situation. (There was quite a bit of trumpet music during these bits, with the trumpeter standing at the back of the stage.) Even with the shock of finding out about Macduff, Macbeth was doing OK and might even have won their fight. But then Lady Macduff, Banquo and Duncan arrived, the witches cried “hold”, and Macbeth just stood there looking at them, allowing Macduff to stab him. Then Macbeth said “enough” several times until Macduff got him down and cut his head off.

Malcolm was standing beside Macduff by this time, and took the severed head, in a plastic bag, which Macduff gave him. They cut the last two lines, ending on “measure, time, and place”, and it only remained for us to give them our applause – some were happier than others – and for the witches to shimmy down the poles and squeak their way off at the end.

Steve was less happy than I was, rating it at 5/10. We both agreed that the central performances were good, and the production worked best when the actors were allowed to get on with saying their lines and build up the energy and the connection with the audience. Much of the design concept was neither here nor there: the clutter got in the way a bit but overall it didn’t either help or hinder the production, though I would have preferred less gloomy lighting. I felt some parts were weak, although mostly the cast did the best they could with their director’s choices. Nadia Albina, who was taking a smaller role than her status justified, was excellent in the merged Gentlewoman part, and while I didn’t like all of Trevor Fox’s interpretation of the messenger/porter/Seyton role, I did like the synergy of the combination. We saw Patrick O’Kane play Macbeth back in 2007, and weren’t impressed then: nothing happened today to change our minds. Both Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff rose above the limitations of the production in many scenes, and it’s just a shame their talents were largely wasted in this dystopian mish-mash. Not great, but we’re glad we saw it just the once, and all best wishes to Rory for a speedy recovery.

© 2018 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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