Let’s face it, Macbeth’s biggest problem is its ubiquity. Easily the most accessible of Shakespeare’s plays – and arguably one of the most powerful – we’ve seen so many average versions of it over the years (amongst which I am inclined to include Justin Kurzel’s 2015 film adaptation) that a production really needs to do something very special with the source material in order to make it an enticing proposition. I’m therefore delighted to say that the National Theatre’s latest production, directed by Rufus Norris and seen here via a live cinema linkup, does exactly that, giving us a Macbeth that rivals the very best of them.
It almost goes without saying that both Rory Kinnear (in the title role) and Anne Marie Duff (as his manipulative wife) submit exceptional performances, giving those oh-so-familiar lines enough oomph to make you feel as though you’re actually hearing them for the first time. No mean feat. But it’s the production design that really shines. This version takes place in what might well be a post-apocalyptic world, where a civil war has just been bloodily disputed and where everything has a grungy ‘make do and mend’ look. Severed heads are proudly displayed in supermarket carrier bags, food is served in battered mess tins and even Macbeth’s armour is contrived from found items battered into shape, which have to be literally gaffa-taped onto him before each battle. Duncan (Stephen Boxer)’s royal regalia comprises an ill-fitting red velvet suit, that might have been salvaged from a charity shop. It provides the one splash of vibrant colour in an otherwise drab and scuffed world.
Production designer Rae Smith has created a huge wood and metal arch upon which much of the action plays out. It somehow contrives to be both heavily industrial yet strangely ethereal as it swings silently back and forth. It is poised over a revolving circular stage, so that each successive scene can glide effortlessly into position. In one sequence, the Weird Sisters move with the turning of that central wheel like the protagonists of a particularly disturbing nightmare. There’s some great use of regional accents: Trevor Fox’s Porter is a dour Geordie; Patrick O’ Kane’s MacDuff a pugnacious Irishman. Oh, and the element that lets down so many stage productions – that climactic battle – is delivered here with enough zeal and gusto to be truly convincing. You’ll believe that a head can be bloodily severed.
Of course, if you’re reading this and you weren’t at last night’s showing, you’ve already missed your chance to see the live broadcast, but the good news is that the production is heading out on a UK and Ireland tour from late September, so – if it’s showing anywhere near you – do take the opportunity to see it. It will serve to remind you that Shakespeare, when convincingly done, can be truly and utterly enthralling.