What’s everyone complaining about?: Macbeth at the NT
Olivier Theatre, National Theatre
Circle A60, £15
23 March 2018
I was primed to revile Rufus Norris’s new Macbeth. Throughout the day people softly laughed when I mentioned my evening’s plans, allowing themselves a gentle scoff at the anger I would soon bring upon myself. As it turns out this is not a bad frame of mind in which to see a half-baked production, and perhaps the same marination might have helped the many Macbeths that have made me far angrier.
That said, the opening of this one was not auspicious. Everyone knows the witches are hard but even against those low expectations the idea to pursue an Exorcist-style witchiness seems misguided. Some things only work in film, and often even not then when they’ve been aped so many times that they become firm cliche. I’m guessing, somewhat condescendingly, that the goal was to connect Shakespeare’s horror with today’s vernacular; I wonder if there was anyone it convinced. Throw in relentlessly grim set designs and a lot of NT-style excessive chorus action and I felt the hours ahead stretch menacingly into the distance.
But wait. Rory Kinnear is in it. I’m not going to say he’s a reliable saviour as he’s as subject as anyone to being miscast; but he very satisfyingly speaks Shakespeare and in pretty much all respects makes for a highly entertaining Macbeth. Anne-Marie Duff I was less sure of to begin with, her initial entrance threatening to steer into a tedious sexualized Lady Macbeth type – but soon the two of them worked together electrically, carrying the play before them.
And that’s really all you need, isn’t it? Nor did they work alone: Patrick O’Kane as Macduff, Kevin Harvey as Banquo and Trevor Fox as the Porter all stood out from an already strong supporting cast in their sensitivity to the text’s power and their exploitation of it to craft individual tragedies. That all of these actors were brought together and performed in the way they performed, and that whatever the production did at least it didn’t get in their way, makes this in my book a Norris success.
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