Reviewed by Timna Abramov.
A critical aspect of Rufus Norris’ production of Macbeth is stated clearly in the programme: Norris aimed to captivate younger audiences, particularly those studying the play, however Norris’ production was flawed. As is so often the case in Shakespeare productions, the speech often felt as though it was being read out across the stage, with little sense of a relationship either between characters or between words. This aspect was particularly disappointing, especially when considering Norris’ desire to spark interest in younger audiences — how can students of Macbeth be expected to engage if they can’t follow the reasoning and conflict within each character? To me, this was a significant area of weakness.
Yet many aspects of the production were good. Despite the lack of fluidity, some performances stood out. Lady Macbeth’s role was done justice, especially in her last speech; Rachel Sanders’ Ross was a pleasure to watch. The contrast between Macbeth’s gruff exterior and his vulnerability was effectively expressed in his soliloquies, and across the entire cast there were specific lines which were powerfully delivered.
Visually, the production was promising; the setting was well-captured by the military costume design the set, which was dark and grimy, reminiscent of an army bunker. Norris opted for a post-apocalyptic setting, which suited the starkness of the play, and also served to highlight the relevance of Macbeth to the modern world. The setting enhanced the plot by its attention to camaraderie, which served to make the regicide more unsettling, a difficult aspect to capture in a world that no longer depends on stable monarchy. However, it also created an undertone of excessive masculinity, which both complimented the primitive violence of Macbeth and was an effective addition to Shakespeare’s examination of gender.
What I was most looking forward to, though, was the atmosphere. On a windy autumn night in Scotland, watching a production of Macbeth seemed perfectly fitting. And initially, the atmosphere Norris created suited the play; the three witches, pale against the dark backdrop, brought a haunting quality to the stage with a classically horror film aesthetic (I was reminded of Robert Eggers’ The Witch, in terms of visuals and audio). But as the play progressed, the mood was lost, and the genre seemed to flicker — what had at first been supernatural became almost like a drama. There was an attempt to restore the eeriness at the end, but by then the tension was lost and the damage was done, and the result was an ending that was neither powerful nor pathetic. In a sense, the great frustration with this play is not that it was bad, but that it wasn’t incredible, which perhaps it could have been.
But did Norris manage to engage his audience, as intended? Overall, yes. While the execution of the production did not do it justice, suffering from a lack of consistency and natural flow, the play was neither stiff nor excessively academic. Norris’ production was stimulating, fresh, and entertaining — worth the watch.
National Theatre's Macbeth runs at the Festival Theatre until Saturday 27th October 2018.