A whole lot of post-apocalyptic hurly-burly and sadly not much more besides – the National Theatre’s Macbeth really is something of a red-trousered disappointment
“You have displaced the mirth”
Brexit has ruined Britain. The war of the Scottish Secession has laid ruin to much of the land north of Hadrian’s Wall. The lawless society that has resulted is a place where people once again use plastic bags willy-nilly (for tidying up after beheadings, as party hats – take your pick), where no-one has a mobile phone (presumably because roaming charges have been re-introduced), where the Look at my fucking red trousers meme has translated into despotic rule.
Such is the world of Rufus Norris’ Macbeth which is set ‘now, after a civil war’, hence my slight embellishment of said setting. I should add that I thought of much of this while watching the production, an indication of the level of engagement that it managed to exert. It wasn’t always thus – a bloody prologue is viscerally and effectively done and the entrance of the witches has a genuine chill to its strangeness.
But for all the post-apocalyptic gloom of Rae Smith’s design and James Farncombe’s eerie lighting, there’s a lack of specificity to this Macbeth which prevents it from transcending the vast space of the Olivier. Who is this Macbeth? For all his undoubted superlative Shakespearean experience, Rory Kinnear never really lets us know – indeed he feels miscast. He nails the intellectual anguish but doesn’t convince as a military man, a guerrilla leader, neither as a sexual partner to Anne-Marie Duff’s Lady Macbeth.
Her work feels more finely detailed – the look of horror on her face at the first touch of blood, the desolation on her face at the realisation of her husband’s mental state (or possibly his red trousers). But she gets weighed down by the production’s overall uncertainty, further complicated by the uninterrogated role of the supernatural here (pity Witch #3 and the amount of running she has to do). Bright spots are present – Patrick O’Kane is a marvellously intense Macduff and Kevin Harvey exudes decency as the wronged Banquo.
And there’s elements that spark the attention. The curious case of Macbeth’s socks, the murderers as smackheads won over with a can of Irn-Bru, whether a French horn would still be called a French horn after Brexit or whether the Express/Mail/Sun/Times will have led a rebranding campaign. Truth is though, for all its enduring popularity Macbeth is a difficult play to stage well and it remains so here.