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FringeReview UK 2018


National Theatre, London

Genre: Classical and Shakespeare, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: National Theatre, Oliver


Low Down

Rufus Norris leads us through a distortive apocalyptic maze full of potential in Rae Smith’s striking Olivier set and revolve where a clattery Millennial-lite bridge hoves to. James Farncombe here lights with a beautiful fuzz. Moritz Junge’s lead costumes light up the grey and mud-inflected garb of others. Orlando Gough’s music is quietly striking, inflected by Simon Allen’s instruments and music bricolage. Marc Tritschler directs it through a pulse of raw song and a more marinaded sound, with Sarah Homer and Laetits Stott on wind instruments; all enfolded by Paul Arditti’s design. Till June 23rd.


In his wonderfully brattish days Jonathan Miller suggested Shakespeare’s history plays like Henry IV would be forgotten as notions of kingship, degree and succession faded in new democracies and dictatorships. Banish Falstaff though and banish the whole world, which includes all the other kings including Macbeth.


This poses challenges if you posit kings in a futuristic dystopia. Cymbeline was twice thrust into a post-Brexit Britain in 2016 (Globe, renamed Imogen and the RSC). But then it’s a shaggy-eared story and its marvellous sprawl somehow absorbed it. Thrust Macbeth into a post-apocalyptic world where degree has broken down, and Thanes and Kings can seem every bit as obsolete as Miller once predicted. Key question: Who’d want to govern that small reach of housing estate somewhere off a transposed Millennium bridge swung very effectively round in all the fighting and witchery scenes? If titles ensure survival, we need to see why.


Rufus Norris leads us through a distortive apocalyptic maze full of potential in Rae Smith’s striking Olivier set and revolve where that clattery Millennial-lite bridge hoves to with embattled traitors being beheaded by as it happens Macbeth. It’s also where the witches – in scenes savagely cut so the charm’s wound down – shimmy up poles to perch like psychedelic buzzards. James Farncombe here lights with a beautiful fuzz and he delivers other tiny miracles. One possibility might have been to further push out futurity with mutants, as John Wyndham did with The Chrysalids. It’d possibly give the Weird Sisters some prophetic welly.


One of them scuds hippyishly about and they seems refugees from the Dream. Much of their malevolence evaporates, they’re simply weird equivocators (a keyword happily not reduced here), though there’s a neat arbitrary twist at the end to bring them full circle as ordinary story-telling demands. Macbeth though is anything but.


Moritz Junge’s costumes for the Sisters shimmer best when thus lit. Lady Macbeth’s emerald green lights up the grey and mud-inflected garb of others. Most striking though is the red of kingship. First Duncan’s then Macbeth’s and finally a procession of eight of Banquo’s progeny, marching with shrunken faces on the backs of their heads out of Harry Potter or more tellingly, some attempt to evoke a very different Japan to Ninagawa’s Macbeth. Red’s the colour of majesty because it’s expensive. It would be again in this environment and sets the ruler apart. Who might assume it though is the fleck of rationale we’re lacking.


Orlando Gough’s music is quietly striking, spooky and spectral on occasion, though inflected by Simon Allen’s instruments and music bricolage. Marc Tritschler directs it through a pulse of raw song and a more marinaded sound, with Sarah Homer and Laetits Stott on wind instruments; all enfolded by Paul Arditti’s design which adds an aural layer to what’s almost a blasted heath. There isn’t exactly pole-dancing with the Sisters as we’ll see, but there’s a rave.


The supernatural’s cauterised though enjoys agency. This is nevertheless in Norris’ hands a cautionary tale of humanly-scaled, even ordinary ex-civilians pushed beyond PTSD acting in extremis. The dishevelled remains of houses, the residue of a council flat for the Macbeths with distressed yellow walls to contrast with homely carpets elsewhere (the MacDuff’s Fife castle for instance). Swords are in, guns have vanished in this post-industrial slag-heap where such things have long gone: so there’s a winning absence of electronic gadgetry. We’re to believe in ad-hoc warlords, though thrashing Norwegian armies sits oddly.


That detail isn’t cut. Perhaps they’re new ice-age migrants – there’s a plausible narrative of displacement we see little use of as Norris attempts to rationalise his ensemble to twenty. He often amalgamates roles to clarify or double their functions and give a connectivity, even a shrunken intimacy that Shakespeare’s otherwise lean machine doesn’t lend – it’s a tight text with a sprawling cast list.


Still, why otherwise reduce the slim text still further, including inexplicably the very last two lines referring to Scone when it’s hyped elsewhere? Norris attempts to draw in the characters’ catalogue by removing several, so the captain’s words at the outset praising Macbeth are now MacDuff’s, and Young Seward doesn’t suffer at Macbeth’s hands because he’s suffered at Norris’s, and it’s Andrew Frame’s Old Seward, or Sward who faces the king.


Trevor Fox as the Porter seems more like the soothsayer from Antony and Cleopatra. But here he’s not only witness to the murders and an intentionally unfunny Porter and third murderer, but the man who warns Lady Macduff. He’s a distinct equivocator then in his own parlance and though one loses the release of tension a great production gives in drunk guffaws, we don’t take away the Porter as the one distinct moment in otherwise dire productions, as in at least one prestigious one some years back.


Stephen Boxer always impresses with flawed majesty, as with his magnificent snake-like Cardinal in Shirley’s eponymous 1641 tragedy at Southwark last year. Here his nobility invests Duncan with a keen sense of degree. Whatever Norris might have directed, Boxer can’t help being naturally regal and it helps enormously.


Kevin Harvey as Banquo, and Patrick O’Kane as Macduff both animate their parts – Banquo as less gullible and affable than he’s sometimes portrayed. And with Farncombe’s lighting he enjoys a spectrally brilliant moment gleaming through a window pane. It’s the most effective use of Banquo’s ghost I’ve seen for a while. Later he comes right into the ill-fated banquet (ill-favoured too, billy-cans lined up, no sign of the strange wind-up-generator raves they had in Duncan’s time in a curiously jerky eve-of-murder junketing). O’Kane’s Macduff is more or less straight, slow to react to his family’s butchering. There again though Malcolm’s key self-accusation is filleted out and Macduff reacts angrily for little reason.


Parth Thakerar’s Malcolm plays Macduff like a rational being caught from another world, who nevertheless finds himself as a commander. He has to flee alone early on since brother Donalbain’s also been scythed from the cast.


Penny Layden’s Rosse as ‘Cos’ to Lady Macduff, Nicholas Karimi’s true sick-hearted Lennox, Nadia Albina’s watchful urgent Gentlewoman and Michael Balogun’s morally appalled Doctor all play rational people in a crazed world.


It’s Anne-Marie Duff and Rory Kinnear as the tragically impelled Macbeths though who’d always command attention whatever play they appear in. Much is expected of Kinnear’s blade-faced intelligence, the keenness of his Hamlet and Iago. Here, he seems numbed, as if PTSD has caught him unable to process either his ambition or finally his enormity, whatever he actually says – though he sometimes hurtles through his speeches at a fresh angle, not always illuminatingly.


There is though one coup in his last, again humanizing his response as he cradles his dead wife. Still, it’s as if he’d died before the play opens. There are moments of horrified recognition, of rage, but Macbeth’s tragedy seems to have been surviving to the opening of Act One where his butchery skills (something that returns full circle) flourish his keenest edge of mind. His very last scene’s uniquely skewed. It doesn’t sit with traditional readings of Macbeth’s character. Norris is asking though, are there any professional soldiers here?


Kinnear though comes alive with Duff, a shuddering warmth between them, a knowingness so she catches him every time denying his ambition. Their love is the warzone ghost of itself: excitingly visceral, deeply-etched in their bones, exhausted beyond eroticism. But still it catches.


Duff’s a magnificently human, though like Macbeth and even the Sisters, not evil agent. It’s a large part of Norris’ point but here it bears less strange fruit. Instead of being caught in a reverie by her Gentlewoman’s announcement of the King as she’s just imagined Macbeth shall be (it’s Duncan riding to his fate at Dunsinane), her ‘thou art mad to say it’ isn’t a self-betrayed reverie, proleptic of the act. Here it’s a slow incredulity.


She enjoys other moments of throwaway pauses. ‘If we fail… we fail.’ Then she pounces. It’s that agency, the ebb and flurry of her lines that humanizes her, as well as her spaced-out dancing on the eve of Duncan’s murder, driving out the death within her. There’s a superb moment too when Macbeth unconscionably carries out the murder weapons in a cloth. Imploring, evoking spirits, invoking terror and at the conclusion of Act Three suddenly collapsing, Duff describes an arc of tension and release such as we rarely see in this production.


And yet and yet… there’s a visceral intent and bravery, a willingness to tear though every received nostrum, some wild use of the revolve with an admittedly frantic cast trying to catch a magic roundabout, that suggests something magnificent could be made of it all. The Ollie cruelly exposes any scenic equivocation. The rationale’s an urgent one: in a post-Trump post-Brexit post-climate-refugee state we could even be looking at this world soon. Ultimately it just lacks that focus, that fierce imagining with detailed attention some bring to Shakespeare. Macbeth lends itself, like all the great tragedies, to futurity, even sci-fi. Norris needs to be clearer, perhaps bolder – and with the text display a different courage altogether. There he might see Shakespeare steadily and a bit more whole.


NT Live Note


Tim Van Someren’s direction is scaled to the sweep of this production’s action, unobtrusively panoramic and where zooming in, never so close-up to draw attention to itself by getting up anyone’s noses. Christopher C Bretnall makes what he can of the colour range and subsequent broadcasts will revel in the poetic, grainy visuals. Interval shots might do well to avoid the acreage of empty seats where possible. It sometimes happens in the Olivier, and might send out an awkward message.