The National Theatre’s most recent foray into Shakespeare’s fictionalised take on the bloody history of 11th century Scotland doesn’t exactly let its audience settle in to a comfortable evening at the theatre. The dim lights go up, and suddenly we’re on the side-lines of a gory battle: The clamour of war can be heard as soldiers flee over a gigantic metal bridge —but they can’t all outrun Macbeth (Rory Kinnear), who apprehends one and swiftly relieves the blackguard of his head.
Soon, the eerie background sounds and chilling screams become almost overwhelming as the three witches (Beatrice Sciricchi, Anna-Maria Nabirye, and Hannah Hutch) appear from the shadows, chanting the play’s familiar opening lines in an otherworldly manner replete with ghostly echoes. The question regarding when the Weird Sisters will meet again and the ominous answer to that query are intoned in a sing-song cadence that suggests the speakers are firmly rooted in the uncanny valley and making a considerable effort to imitate human speech.
This production, directed by Rufus Norris and designed by Rae Smith, is set during an imagined civil war in the near future, and the unsettling tone established in the first scene permeates the play throughout. The unfamiliar setting is alienating to a large extent, as the audience never fully gets to place the actors —wearing tattered and faded clothes, some of them taped together haphazardly— in any particular time period. The sounds of low-pitched brass instruments and brutish battle cries throughout the play enhance the general feeling of unease.
In terms of performance, this production is up there with the best of them. Anne-Marie Duff’s harsh and unflinching Lady Macbeth chills the blood from her first soliloquy, and her character’s rapid descent into madness is a compelling watch, as it is especially her softer, more vulnerable moments that make her performance memorable.
Kinnear’s take on the infamous Thane of Glamis becomes decidedly interesting in the latter part of the play, once Macbeth has surpassed his wife in bloodthirsty determination. Gone is the vacillating, cerebral character of the first act —this new Macbeth is vigorous, daring, and truly frightening. Indeed, his formerly capable, strong-willed wife’s terror at the new King’s sudden shift underscores the clear role reversal the Macbeths undergo in Act 3.
If all this sounds a bit heavy, never fear; the Porter scene (with Trevor Fox in the relevant role), often an afterthought in productions of this play, was perfectly staged, although this reviewer couldn’t quite decide whether that was despite the hellishness of the overall setting and mood or because of it. Similarly, the co-ed Murderers (Alana Ramsey and Joshua Lacey) Macbeth dispatches to kill Banquo are a trashy treat straight out of a reality television show where the characters wear garish colours and bleach their hair too much.
Banquo is brought to life by the talented Kevin Harvey, who has the makings of a brilliant Shakespearean. His energetic and generous approach to the character presents a strong foil to Kinnear’s ill-at-ease tragic hero. Another standout is Patrick O’Kane in the role of Macduff, whose anguish and fighting spirit are moving, to say the least.
This production makes use of some excellent staging, lighting, and sound design choices to present a worthy Scottish Play that lets its formidable cast shine in their performances. Once the battle’s lost and won (incorporating a lot of very realistic stage violence, naturally), the three witches disappear into black, satisfied with the fulfilment of their prophecies, leaving the audience to despair at the nature of human folly so passionately laid bare in this staging that might almost seem a little close to home in these days of nuclear threats and political tensions.
Macbeth is screened as part of the current NT Live season, and can be seen at Cinema Nouveau at the V&A Waterfront on 13 and 14 June 2018. Tickets are available at www.sterkinekor.co.za. The Fugard Theatre, as part of their current Bioscope season, will also be offering a NT Live screening on 1 July 2018, with tickets available through Computicket.