There’s a moral sense of the inevitable in Macbeth. Man is greedy. Greedy is bad. Murder is badder. Bad men – especially the badder ones – die. Brushing aside accusations of over-simplification, any fan of the Channel 5 Afternoon Movie could predict from the start that things won’t end well for this eponymous antihero, despite the power and fame that the witches predict for him. Inevitable. And that’s the summary of Macbeth in a nutshell!
If there is an achievement to be taken here, it’s that the bare minimum really has been applied.
Perhaps it’s this inevitability that has pervaded the cast and creative team in Rufus Norris’ first Shakespeare for some time. To quote from Yogi teachings “If you accept that the next moment is inevitable, then you will be lethargic, lazy and dead” – and with little passion, pace, colour or energy displayed here, we can only be grateful that noone seems actually dead. Perhaps the sense of ennui was so strong that Norris could only manage to send in a couple of texts with his ‘direction’; perhaps Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff (Mr and Mrs MB) only had the energy for a semi-rehearsed reading; perhaps designer Rae Smith hoped that grabbing as many black bin liners as she could fit in her arms to chuck at the ramp and revolve that may have been onstage from a previous production would be ok for ‘moody’. Perhaps the bare minimum was all they could muster.
Franky this is so pedestrian even for lesser talents than those before us that I have to assume it is this way for a purpose that passed me by. It’s all suffocatingly wrapped up in a darkness of set – at first, strikingly foreboding as it invokes the witches’ arrival, but remaining this way for most of the play and so quickly becoming a by-numbers representation of some post-apocalyptic nowhere. The oft-used ramp swirls on and off with little purpose other than to vary a sightline or enable the stage direction of “looks afar”. The witches themselves – committed performances as they are by Hannah Hutch, Anna-Maria Nabirye and Beatrice Scirocchi – are all too easily packaged into ‘Tall Thin One’, ‘Squeaky-Voiced, Echoey One’ and ‘Gallops Apace Around The Entire Stage Area… One’. Guess everyone has to have a gimmick – just having a little more besides would be nice.
(I lie about the the darkness. There’s also a party. A sort of rave affair. Neither timeless or timely, it’s that stalwart interpretation a first-time director always applies to such an occurrence in Shakespeare. Think The B52s' Love Shack playing when Romeo first sets eyes on Juliet. Ghetto blaster wheeled on, shapes ‘thrown’ on a sort of caravan park that is Macbeth’s grandiose home. Oh well, better here than during ‘Blind Spot’ I guess.)
Kinnear clearly knows his way around the prose but starts with an ‘anxiously fretting’ delivery and stays resolute to this level so displaying none of the emotional and mental undoing of Macbeth. His anguish when faced with the supposedly nightmarish – but oddly comic – visions put before him by the witches is more akin to that which one experiences when misplacing a newly topped up Oyster card. Although Kinnear is around the age Macbeth probably was at the time to which Shakespeare is alluding, he seems like a man whose just very, very, very tired of his middle-age.
And if there’s any sense of the psychological machinations of Lady Macbeth’s powerfully controlling manipulation in Duff’s portrayal, it’s so deeply implicit that it’s somewhat surprising when she picks up the dagger to complete the first murderous task. With last year’s Common, Miss Duff was broadly forgiven for doing her best with a bad lot – with this sub-par performance following so soon, one wonders if awards for theatrical performances back in 2008 still merit the assumed high expectations a decade later.
The rest of the cast are of the usual diversity that gets applied to Shakespeare more than to any other writer as standard. Normally ignored, with so little else going on, the lack of purpose to this Scottish clan being made up of strongly accented denizens of the likes of Liverpool, Northern Ireland, Surrey and Newcastle – plus the usual gender swaps and cross-colour families – is just another tick against the list of vapid achievements.
Particular mention of the unnecessary though must go to the portrayal of the ‘holy hero’ against Macbeth’s ‘evil villain’; the strong, valiant, avenger who leads the final battle against the tyranny. Patrick O’Kane’s Macduff is a tightly-jeaned, sleeveless t-shirted, Northern Irish bellowing ‘Muscle Mary’ – mincing into battle with his sword dangling beside him, favouring the overlong dramatic pause and askance eyebrows representations of shocked, and shouting ‘Horror, horror, horror’ with a timbre of screechingly high-pitched aghast that reminded me of the response I heard recently when the wig was knocked from a Drag Queen’s head mid-performance of This is Me. No implication of sexuality here and no suggestion from me that camp men are unable to lead into battle – it’s just an interpretation of the emotional and sensitive elements to Macduff that I haven’t seen before. (Fact fans may be interested to know that The Telegraph described O’Kane’s 2007 RSC performance in this title role as being “like Ian Paisley (making) a three-course meal of the verse… shouting with his mouth full… sacrificing the rhythm of the verse to long, showy pauses”. Not that much seems to have changed since.)
Perhaps this will be a slow-burner that wasn’t quite ready for Press Night. Broadcast to cinemas nationwide as part of NT Live on 10 May and then running at the Olivier to the end of June, there’s only a short break before the production then embarks on a six month national tour through to the end of March 2019 (though the cast for that is still to be confirmed). It’s unfortunate that another inevitability is that Macbeth is such a surefire way of achieving the remit of doing theatre outside of the capital with an assurance of ticket sales (thanks GSCE 101!) that effort is not a prerequisite. If there is an achievement to be taken here, it’s that the bare minimum really has been applied.