A massive curved ramp rises out of the National’s Olivier stage like the hump of a whale. Springing from it, poles stretch high toward the ceiling. Suddenly there is screaming, people flee down the ramp in the direction of the audience, chased by others. One of the pursuers is Rory Kinnear’s Macbeth, who catches his man, throws him to the ground and summarily saws his head off.
The National’s new production of Macbeth certainly starts with a bang, brutal and dynamic. And yet what immediately follows is a premonition just as foreboding as anything later voiced by the three witches. Kinnear takes the severed head and shimmies up the pole — the purpose clear, it seems, to pop it onto the top of the pike. It’s a long way up, the challenge and necessary exertion admirable. But then he stops, halfway, and attaches the head to a little hook — the easy distance and the half measure. Dramatically and emotionally, this will sum up the whole production.
As a play about disruption in the natural order, it makes sense that Macbeth should be in season. Three productions in the U.K. will soon be running concurrently, including Christopher Ecclestone’s Royal Shakespeare Company debut which, knowing the Northerner, is likely to be a fiery affair. In London, Rufus Norris’ first Shakespeare production in 25 years feels as if someone is dousing the fire from the back of the stage.
The conception is promising. The mobile ramp lends dramatic height and depth to the space, especially during battle scenes and the meetings with the witches; when it’s not employed, the emphasis of Rae Smith’s design is on minimalism and low-rent modern, which suggests a domain not of kings and nobles, nor of early history, but of scavengers fighting for power in a ramshackle, post-apocalyptic world.
Duncan is a scruffy pauper king, Dunsinane a dump made up of breeze blocks, a generator providing fairy lights seems like a rare treat, and Macbeth’s doomed banquet has less opulence than a soup kitchen. Armor is a block of cardboard bound together by masking tape, worn by clansmen who greet each other with tribal howls.
This is a world that has already gone to the dogs, long before the Macbeths’ dirty deeds, though that doesn’t undercut the baseness of the couple’s ambition. The production is strongest when it presents the Macbeths as mid-ranking opportunists, driven less by profound character flaws than the rather dim, knee-jerk reaction to an opportunity. This pair wouldn’t have a clue what to do with power, or even wealth, if there were any of either in this wretched place.
Anne-Marie Duff is particularly good value at the outset, as her Lady Macbeth sees the potential for advancement in an instant and — unlike her husband — leaps into action. There’s a terrific lustiness in the welcome to her returning husband, “Great Glamis,” drawing him into a passionate kiss. The sexual chemistry between the leads adds weight to her mode of goading, namely to challenge his manhood at every turn.
But while Duff maintains her intensity — her well-shaded passage from deadly ambition to crumpled shock at the demon she’s unleashed, and from there to guilt and madness is the production’s strongest asset — Kinnear diminishes by the minute. He’s good as the brutal soldier, and in conveying Macbeth’s initial wavering. But once Duncan is dispatched and the bloody deeds escalate, the performance seems to stop at the verse; he’s too beautifully spoken, too polite, too restrained.
In contrast, Patrick O’Kane’s Macduff is so impassioned, so vital a physical presence that it only makes the void at the play’s center more pronounced. And like the lead, the production ultimately fails to spark. The murders of Banquo and the Macduffs — usually guarantors of pathos — are over-choreographed, denuded of their impact. In the innocents’ fate, as that of the Macbeths, there is little sense of loss, let alone tragedy.
The atmospheric milieu includes characterful witches with some enjoyably odd vocal techniques. But the ever-present horns add a somnambulant drag on proceedings, and Norris’ notion of representing a panoply of U.K. dialects onstage takes the Scottish out of the “Scottish Play,” much more than if the whole were in received pronunciation. Which just seems a bit daft.
Photos: Brinkhoff Mögenburg
This review first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter