That’s what many people think Rufus Norris has done with his new production of Macbeth in the National Theatre. Take a stalwart of Shakespearean drama and completely murdered it. Many critics were scathing about all aspects of the play. “It is ugly to look at” – What’s on Stage, “bleak and often brutal” – Henry Hitchings, “the play struggles to rise about the sheer Stygian ghastliness” – Ann Treneman, and largely summed up by “The aim, I presume, was to create an especially atmospheric Macbeth, one seeped in inky-black mystique. But unfortunately the result is bizarrely flat,” – Rosemary Waugh.
In fact, most of the criticism was directed at the stage design rather than the performance, but I found that one of the most attractive things about this production. This is not the best Macbeth I have seen. Not by a country mile. But it is not the complete turkey that the criteratti set out to find.
Let’s deal with that set design first of all. The backdrop to this massive stage at the National was what seemed to be crumpled black plastic drapes, twisted and heavily layered, sheet upon sheet. At times it gave an immense depth to the play acting out in in front of you. At others it limited the vision to the a more intimate portion of the stage. Someone described it as seaweed crossed with shredded bin-liner, and that’s exactly what it looked like. When it wasn’t looking like Highlands of Scotland, or tapestries in Cawdor Castle, or Burnham Wood.
A rotating castle set exposed different rooms of Cawdor and other castles, and a sweeping runway gave height and depth to the broader action on moor and mountain.
It was on this runway we first meet the witches. No mysterious phantoms these. A simple threesome. No animatronics or flying trapezes, but one takes a high-speed run around the place, with an equally high-speed trill of a cackle.
And for the main parts? For me this is where the disappointment, if there is some, lay. Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff take the lead roles and whilst some argue that the cuts to the script made by Norris left them little to play with, I think it was the playing which lacked something. This was an ordinary bloke (and his ordinary wife) who was told by some witches that he would be King. An ordinary bloke would have said “OK, that’s nice. Let’s see what happens.”
Neither Macbeth, nor – crucially – Lady Macbeth have that pent up psychopathic fervour which drives them in other productions. And so it all becomes slightly unbelievable. A bit soft round the edge where it should be hard as steel.
So. It’s not great. But it’s not as bad as some critics say. Definitely give it a go if you get the chance. It won’t stand comparison with the great productions – Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth on stage, Michael Fassbender in the recent film – but, to borrow a phrase from the Good Doctors’ film reviews, it’s not entirely without merit. And if you like seaweed crossed with shredded bin-liner you’re in for a treat.