Melissa Blease reviews Macbeth on at the Theatre Royal Bath until 8 December
If Macbeth – the original Game of Thrones? – is The Bard’s darkest work, the National Theatre’s chillingly atmospheric new production – distinctly dour in design; elegantly eerie in execution – adds an even more sinister edge to an already grim saga.
From the opening scenes where the witches – a suitably manic, disturbing trio who slide up and down tree trunks with the dexterity of pole dancers wearing outfits that wouldn’t be out of place in a Bauhaus video circa 1981 – ambush Scottish general Macbeth with a prophecy that he will one day become King of Scotland, inspiring him to embark on an orgy of betrayal and murder, you know you’re on super-goth territory.
A shifting, sharply-inclined walkway dominates a stage draped with what appears to be bedraggled black plastic (a striking scheme by War Horse set designer Rae Smith); the lighting cleverly shifts between over-bright and almost-too-dark, in keeping with the pace and the action; the characters are largely dressed in shabby, makeshift combat gear, decaying DMs and decrepit jeans – so far, so very Mad Max reimagined by Mary Shelley.
Michael Nardone is a gruff, blokey Macbeth, underplaying his villainous thirst for power in favour of revealing his bewilderment at the spiral of evil intrigue that’s unfolding all around him. Kirsty Besterman as his missus – the deliciously ruthless, highly complex, mega-ambitious termagant that is Lady Macbeth – brings nuanced dimension to her role, too: she’s a little bit lusty, a tad titillating… and eventually, she does descent into madness very, very well indeed. Brave, noble Banquo, however (Reuben Johnson, temporarily replacing Patrick Robinson in this performance) is allowed to get a little bit lost along the way; he’s not ghostly enough in his big ghostly scene which is a shame, given the production’s overall vibe of haunting chill. Similarly, elsewhere, the Murderers are given more personality than King Duncan, Macduff or Malcolm put together – it’s an interesting directorial twist by Rufus Norris, but it’s a gamble that’s largely paid off; if you’re looking for a completely fresh take on tradition, Norris’s Macbeth is it.
Norris hasn’t, however, allowed his reinvigoration to detract from the substance at the heart of the matter. Despite having to deliver his most famous speech in two parts as the stage revolves around him, Macbeth/Nardone’s delivery of the legendary soliloquy that begins “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow…” has a distinctly personal edge to it, allowing us to see and hear the nuance within that chimerical speech in a totally fresh light: Macbeth is grieving the loss of his wife – and Nardone/Norris want us to share that grief with him.
Anarchic, chaotic, violent (the spectacle is bookended with severed heads), passionate and even – albeit in a New Romantic/slightly Rocky Horror Show kinda way – ever so slightly camp, the NT’s thoroughly modern Macbeth largely works well; in Norris’s hands, it’s a tale told by a visionary, full of fury and substance.