Review: Macbeth, Trafalgar Studios

“Stay you imperfect speakers, tell me more”

What is it that makes a hit? Jamie Lloyd’s Macbeth, the first show in his Trafalgar Transformed residency at the Trafalgar Studios, has rapidly become one of the hottest tickets in town, selling out nearly all of its shows and inspiring epic levels of queuing for the dayseats. And the audience it has drawn, at this show at least, felt significantly younger than one would usually see at a West End house. So something has clearly worked in the marketing of Shakespeare’s tragedy to make it the kind of success that they most likely hadn’t dared dream of. In light of that, it seems almost immaterial that I predominantly found it a disappointing production.

It was a fascinating experience to see the reactions of fresher eyes to a play whose ubiquity, arguably, does not necessarily correlate with its quality. For all its noble brutality and visceral poetry, it can be something of a hard ask in its later stages, no more so than in Act 4 Scene 3 which is the stuff of theatrical nightmares, yet it remains popular. And in Lloyd’s production with its Kensington Gore-splattered imagining of a near-future dystopian Scotland (the consequence of independence…?) and frequent bold strokes especially in Soutra Gilmour’s design which cleverly opens out, it clearly connected with its teenage audience from their frequent audible reactions.

But for me, much of it underwhelmed. My major problem was with the clarity of the verse-speaking, not with the Scots accent before I’m labelled a Sassenach, but in the establishment of a speaking style that replaced subtlety and rhythm with speed and volume. Throw in the gas masks of the weird sisters and I was left extremely glad that it was a text I was familiar with. The overall impression is one which evokes a spiralling inevitability to the end but so much is lost on the journey as the richness of Shakespeare’s words is plundered.

James McAvoy (returning to a role he has acted on television before) brings an undeniable energy to Macbeth himself but in most effective in the rare moments where the BPM is reduced to allow something profound to grow out of this interpretation. He lacks any chemistry with Claire Foy’s Lady Macbeth though, her delivery being one which really rankled with me, which undermines one of the strongest motors of the plot and as with many modernisations, the removal of nobility from the set-up – this Macbeth always feels like a fighting terrorist – somehow lessens its impact.

There’s good work from Forbes Masson as Banquo, Hugh Ross as Duncan and Allison Mackenzie’s Lady Macduff – I still remain unsure about Jamie Ballard’s Macduff but I think that’s as much to do with my own preconceptions about the character. And ultimately that’s what I was left thinking, about how much we carry expectation into productions of play that we’ve seen so many times. Whilst I’d rather they hadn’t laughed so much at the darker moments, it was pleasing to see theatre connect with a younger audience even as my jaded blogger’s pencil dismissed it as uninspired. It’s a good job I only have two more Macbeths (so far) in the calendar ahead…

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (with interval)
Photo: Johan Persson

Booking until 27th April

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