With the Scottish Play, Rufus Norris makes his return to Shakespeare after a 26-year absence. This particular production is set in the present day, following what looks to have been a particularly brutal & devastating civil war. Darkness has returned and spirits & magic have come up out of the woodwork to influence people’s lives, shaping the atmosphere and prophesying the future; in such a desolate landscape, where else could you turn but to more mystical realms?
The story is probably a familiar one to most people reading this. Following a typically violent battle, Macbeth and Banquo stumble across a trio of Weird Sisters who greet Macbeth as Thane of both Glamis and Cawdor (the latter title has not yet been personally bestowed upon him) and “king hereafter”, as well as telling Banquo he will begin a long line of kings, though not ruling himself. This sets a bloody course of events into action, as Lady Macbeth convinces her husband to take matters into their own hands, slowly turning influential figures against them as they battle for their wits as well as their land.
Given the continued political upheaval & instability, it’s no wonder that the Scottish Play is being trotted out all over the place this year, with productions at the Rose Playhouse, Tobacco Factory, the RSC (starring Christopher Eccleston, transferring to the Barbican this autumn), and even the Pop-up Globe in New Zealand, plus Mark Bruce’s dance version (now on tour), and forthcoming productions from Merely Theatre and at York’s Pop-Up Rose Theatre. By setting this version in what feels like an almost possible alternate present, Norris brings us closer to the action whilst also keeping us at arm’s length – we haven’t, as yet, regressed so far as to believe in witches, but in post-apocalyptic worlds anything is possible.
Rae Smith’s grungy set design shows the desolation of the world, as well as the practical aspect of making do with whatever’s to hand; Moritz Junge’s costume design ties in nicely with this idea, particularly when you consider Macbeth’s “armour”, bound to him with parcel tape. True, the dystopian ‘style’ is perhaps a little overused at the moment, but as a response to the current climate you can understand why creatives’ minds are tending that way.
Though occasionally distracting when played at the same time as speeches or quieter dialogue, Orlando Gough’s compositions do add to the eerie nature of the production (the odd woodwind moments almost drawing us back to nature) – and Paul Arditti’s sound design drives home the modern influence in combination with the dark forces at work. Having the witches sing & chant most of their lines is a reminder of the old belief that music & magic are intertwined, and having their voices echo around the auditorium is creepy, as well as reminder of their power.
A large ensemble populates this dystopian world, although you get the feeling that there may not be too many others left outside of this set of people, given the complete destruction surrounding them.
Anne-Marie Duff shines once again as Lady Macbeth; she is, of course, the one who manages to convince Macbeth to get started on a course of violence by murdering Duncan, though you can see in her eyes that she might not be as confident as she makes out. Certainly she wants to become queen, but when she realises the bloody trail that will be left in order to hang onto that office it proves far too much to bear, slipping her into a moving display of raw grief & guilt over her actions.
Opposite her at my performance was understudy Nicholas Karimi. I have now seen a few versions of this play, but I can safely say that his portrayal is undoubtedly the best of the lot. It does help, initially, that he actually is Scottish – there’s something about hearing those iconic soliloquies in their natural accent that lends a real poetry to it. During the course of the play, Karimi skilfully shows the infection of greed & ambition take hold, turning from a benevolent man & reluctant killer to desperate tyrant, though you sense that in trying to justify his actions to his wife he’s also trying to convince himself that he’s doing what needs to be done. Karimi has a phenomenal stage presence and delivers those famous line with a natural ease, giving an engrossing & captivating performance from start to finish.
My verdict? A dystopian look at one of Shakespeare’s most well-known plays, ushering in a new dark age in the aftermath of civil war – Anne-Marie Duff and Nicholas Karimi truly lead the way with compelling performances.
Macbeth runs at the National Theatre (Olivier Theatre) until 23 June 2018. Tickets are available online or from the box office – Friday Rush tickets are on offer for this production. The UK & Ireland tour begins in September 2018.