The National Theatre’s Macbeth opens onto a post-apocalyptic world – dark, wet and drowning in ripped plastic.
This doesn’t just feel like the aftermath of a bloody civil war, but the end of the earth as we know it.
Rae Smith’s set design creates a dark and brutal world, where even the trees have mutated into steel pole trunks with withered rags for leaves. The effect captures something between a Gothic sci-fi movie and a nihilistic video game – the audience, made up largely of teenagers, go wild for it.
If director, Rufus Norris wanted to capture Shakespeare for a new generation it seems he has done it. Being a GCSE set-text always helps to get bums on seats, but it does nothing to keep a young audience quiet, no matter how many notices you put on the door stating no confectionary is to be consumed during the show. Here for the most part they are silent and transfixed.
We hear laddish excitement when Macbeth leans towards Lady Macbeth for a passionate embrace, and I marvel how the actors keep straight faces. Thankfully, there is more killing than kissing and the gamer generation quickly settle down. It’s clear the gruesome action that follows has them hooked.
While this production may not be one for purists, it is a visually stunning retelling that puts violence and power at the core. And although the witches’ scenes are cut back, their presence is memorable – darting up and down poles and conjuring supernatural beings with doll-face horror masks.
Scottish actor, Michael Nardone, makes a strong and believable Macbeth. We first meet him, decapitating a man with a machete before holding up and bagging his bloody, severed head. We don’t believe he needs much coaxing into evil deeds by Lady Macbeth. Kirsty Besterman’s performance captures Lady Macbeth’s frailty from the start. She’s propelled forward by Macbeth’s prophetic fortune but there is a sense she doesn’t really know what evil she’s opened-up until her hands are plunged into Duncan’s sticky blood.
The futility of it all weighs heavy even before we get to Macbeth’s ‘brief candle’ soliloquy. On taking the crown Macbeth still lives in a dirty prefab with bare walls. He holds his armour together with packing tape and serves wine to guests out of old plastic catering bottles. The murders and zombie hauntings seem a whole lot of bother for what appears to be a red suit and sequinned dress.
Still, as we all know, there is a lot more blood to be spilled before the final curtain. If Shakespeare’s language made this descent into hellishness seem poetic, this production assures us it is not.
★ ★ ★ ★
Read our interview with National Theatre Artistic Director, Rufus Norris about the show.