Two Macbeths have opened at two flagship British theatres this month, a coincidence that seems only to have augured double, double toil and trouble. To be fair, opinion has been divided on Polly Findlay’s version for the RSC. But there’s been scarcely a glimmer of approval for this production, by Rufus Norris, on the National’s cavernous Olivier stage. The causes of so much critical disdain are obvious. The design, by Rae Smith, is both ugly and impractical, and Norris’ staging features a number of gimmicks that are clumsy and, for a director with plenty of stunning work behind him, startlingly amateurish. That, though, is not quite the whole story. Because when you cast actors of the stature and charisma of Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff in the lead roles, no such undertaking can be quite all bad. And if it’s a hobbled, misbegotten creature, a thing of landfill and dystopian misery, it still manages to limp along at quite a lick.
Smith’s set is dominated by a revolving ramp, out of which sprout tall, flexible poles topped with what look like giant, grubby mops – a cursed “moving grove” of the most blasted of trees, if that’s what they are. The Three Witches – a trio of squeaking, squawking, giggling and gurning creatures who sometimes arrive garlanded with the limbs of dolls or possibly dead babies – swarm up these swaying structures with considerable muscular skill. There’s a backdrop of black plastic, like ripped rubbish sacks, that rustles distractingly with each entrance and exit. And when the Macbeths celebrate military victory and the arrival of King Duncan (a gangster-overlordish, scarlet-suited Stephen Boxer), the revellers gyrate to off-key jazz saxophone and techno beats, stamping on tables and even puking rhythmically into a wastepaper basket, in the debris of a smashed-up deserted office complex. They wear combat fatigues, battered armour held together with gaffer tape, ripped fishnets, sequins or garish faux fur. It’s vaguely Mad Max, but it also suggests they’ve raided a derelict shopping mall for their fast-fashion gladrags.
Duff’s Lady Macbeth, in faux leather jeans and tank top, has the ravaged, hollow-cheeked beauty of a death’s head. She makes her call to the spirits to “unsex me here” a distraught, desperate plea, and when she speaks of “nature’s mischief” there’s such anguish in the words that you cannot help but wonder what physical torments she might have suffered. Kinnear, meanwhile, is hungry for advancement and bitter with careerist jealousy. The awkward silence, when Duncan announces Malcolm as Prince of Cumberland and therefore his heir, is loaded with resentful fury. And the Macbeths are a couple incapable of offering each other any kind of meaningful emotional comfort. Only when she lies dead from suicide in a pool of her own blood can her husband at last tenderly cradle her, as he stares into the maw of his future in “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.”
There’s much elsewhere that is, frankly, painful in a less elevating manner. Trevor Fox’s wiry, whiny old Porter is a bore – though there is a nicely telling jolt when he finds Macbeth’s discarded, bloodied sock, and his eyes widen in realisation that foul deeds are afoot. Moments when the ensemble of actors simply freezes on the spot, as if playing a game of musical statues, while speeches or scenes are played out, look like the stuff of school plays. And as the tragedy gathers pace, grisly masks worn backwards for uncanny effect and gory severed heads in plastic carrier bags look more silly than supernatural. There’s still much to admire here in what the actors achieve. But they do so in spite of the staging and concept – and no thanks to either.