Macbeth (2 stars)

Macbeth

credit: Brinkhoff/Mogenburg

Well designed, well acted but pointless

A mere fortnight after the last production of Macbeth appeared in Scotland (Paper Cinema's animated version at the manipulate festival), the National Theatre's interpretation is a reminder of how moribund and uninspired theatre can be: a play made stale through repetition and familiarity, that meditates upon a medieval mode of power that has been left behind by the partial triumph of Enlightenment philosophy, democracy and capitalism, rendered all the more irrelevant by a lack of forceful interpretation or imaginative dramaturgy.

Director Rufus Norris does not use the script to reflect on contemporary corruptions, or even the subtle interactions between character fate, or how the violent passions of the central couple explode into political conspiracy and state oppression. Rather, this production simply dresses up middle-aged men as soldiers, encourages them to shout and perform a toxic masculinity, throws in a few severed heads and badly choreographed fight-scenes and hope that the familiarity of Shakespeare's poetry will resolve it all into some kind of entertainment.

Leaving aside the assumed importance of Macbeth – although the characterisations of the usurping king and his wicked, suicidal wife are inconsistent and the plot is a shallow, propagandist commentary on the corruption caused by the abuse of undeserved power – the Scottish play has been produced so often that Norris struggles to find any new meaning or contemporary interpretation to add vigour to the script. The mostly solid performances from the the ensemble and the energy of the witches as they clamber up trees and caricature their spookiness can't rescue the production from a sense of the predictable: rather than considering the potential of theatre as either a medium for the exploration of ideas or a reflection on its history, this National Theatre production is a ritualistic performance of an established success, its meaning a given and its importance designated rather than earnt.

The production does have admirable qualities: the ascent and descent of Macbeth is told clearly, and the masculine culture that encourages the usurpers ambitions is portrayed in the rough interactions between the Scottish warriors: an elongated interlude of witchcraft and prediction is suitably unnerving, if a little too blunt, and the sinister atmosphere of a court slowly dissolving throughout the second half into an arid, paranoid and vicious cauldron of conspiracy and fear is conjured. Music is used effectively to ramp up the melodramatic intensity, and while the final battle doesn't bring the mayhem, the shorter scenes of the final acts and the increasingly claustrophobic scenography capture Macbeth's isolation and failure.

And on the positive side, of course, a National Theatre production of Macbeth does attract a large audience, a reminder that theatre can still be a populist medium.

Reviewed at Theatre Royal, Glasgow. Now touring.

National Theatre: Macbeth

Shakespeare’s most intense and terrifying tragedy is directed by Rufus Norris. Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff play Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

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