There can’t be much creativity left to wring from Shakespeare’s supposedly cursed Scottish Play that has not been done before in the intervening 400 years since its first performance. It has been adapted into operas, influenced many TV shows (including an episode of Cuckoo series 5, of all things) and films, whether they be direct adaptations (such as Justin Kurzel’s haunting Macbeth (2015)) or merely culturally assimilated (like Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Throne of Blood (1957)).
Such is the expectation that whenever a new grand-scale adaptation is presented, it has a billing that is difficult to live up to. The National Theatre Macbeth production has escaped its London-based critics. Another company taking another stab at the GCSE-favourite would need to go some distance to truly impress an audience who have grown weary of adaptation after adaptation of the Bard’s work in a contemporary setting.
But on the stage is where Macbeth truly comes alive. There are few companies who could do it quite the same level of justice as the National Theatre. Set designer Rae Smith (War Horse) has done a magnificent job at creating a breathing living world on stage with a gigantic moving slope sitting right at the heart of proceedings as cast members nimbly glide about it, flirting with its edges in dramatic and tense moments.
Director Rufus Norris (Cabaret, London Road) uses the astounding set to great aplomb as he re-envisions the play as a concrete post-apocalyptic gangland. However, the self-fulfilling prophecy that drives the tragedy at the heart of Macbeth is performed in the traditional way, albeit with more spectacle. The post-nuclear apocalypse Britain of 80s thriller Threads is brought to mind as events unfold, rather than witnessing the all-too-familiar regal majesty of a story about medieval royalty.
The three Weird Sisters (Elizabeth Chan, Evelyn Roberts and Olivia Sweeney) ascend poles like eerie spider-women, severed heads with stringy flesh are held aloft after gruesome battles, nightmarish visions of unsettling baby-faced ghouls wander the stage and foetuses are carried around in clear plastic bags – no doubt a subtle environmental message amongst the rest of the urban decay. Macbeth is an incredibly malleable story and here it is given a contemporary lick of paint presenting a future culture whose past is destroyed by its own avarice and desire to rule. Perhaps Norris even comes to us as the witches did for Macbeth (a brilliant Michael Nardone) suggesting a self-fulfilling prophecy of our own making yet (or soon) to be realised?
It would be remiss not to mention Moritz Junge’s grimy downbeat costume designs, dressing the bulk of the cast in a mix of khaki-esque military colours of greys, greens and browns matching the beat up old concrete rooms and junkyard orgies. But it is those underneath the tattered garbs that thrive. Nardone swaggers through the play as the man prophesied to rule the kingdom. His commanding delivery expounds a depth and thunder that rattles around the theatre. His descent into the aggressive and obsessed leader of the Scots is portrayed wholly convincingly; from the fabled bloody hands from committing the most heinous of deeds, to the tenderness shown to Lady Macbeth (an equally compelling Kirsty Besterman) and the fearless confrontation with Macduff (Ross Waiton), he just absolutely nails it.
As do virtually all of the cast. Patrick Robinson threatens to steal every scene he’s in – even when it’s just his ghostly presence lurking in the background bathed in a green glow – as Macbeth’s confidant-turned-threat Banquo. He commands the eye with his charisma and delivers the most Shakespearean of lines with a natural informality.
Not everything was perfect on the night. The famous scene where Macduff is urged to use grief as the “whetstone of your sword” by Malcolm (Joseph Brown) after it is revealed his wife (Lisa Zahra) and children have been murdered lacked the same level of emotion that had been delivered with gusto thus far, despite an otherwise splendid Rachel Sanders’ best efforts. But this is such a minor gripe in an otherwise excellent play.
It was a privilege to be able to catch this National Theatre performance on its tour of the UK. No doubt it will continue to capture many detractors who might see this as a spectacle designed to ‘wow’ with fancy clothes and sets dressing what is at its root just another adaptation of Macbeth. That may partly true; it is just another adaptation of Macbeth. But if you only ever intend on seeing one version of the play brought to life on stage, then this is truly worth the money for a ticket before its national tour ends in March. You won’t regret it.