In 2016, to celebrate Shakespeare’s 400th birthday, the Royal Shakespeare Company staged a compilation of Shakespearean scenes, songs and soliloquies, which was televised. During this celebration, Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff performed a scene from Macbeth. It was tantalising to see such a brilliant pairing onstage. I hoped that one day these two fantastic actors would perform the play in its entirety. When the tickets came on sale for this production at the National Theatre, I was extremely excited to see it. Even as the negative critics’ reviews were published, I vowed that I would make up my own mind regarding the play. I was still hyped by the possibility of seeing Rory Kinnear perform Shakespeare live on stage.
There are few better at performing Shakespeare than Rory Kinnear. The intonations and stresses in his voice follow the rhythmic pattern of iambic pentameter perfectly. There is no doubt that he masters the bard’s poetic language and rhythms. He effortlessly tackles Shakespeare’s soliloquies and truly captivates the audience throughout his plays. His performance in Macbeth was no different. Having seen veteran Kenneth Branagh play the doomed character in Manchester, Kinnear’s performance is equally as strong, adding a unique vulnerability to Macbeth which I have never seen before. Rather than a ruthless killer, Kinnear’s Macbeth is horrified by the grotesque murders he commits. He turns into a nervous wreck, his mannerisms were unsettled and his voice wavered. With a shaking leg and hands, Rory Kinnear’s Macbeth is visibly shocked and full of anguish and remorse. Rather than a power hungry murderer, he presented a man who had gone too far into bloodshed to turn back. It gave Macbeth a humanity which was refreshing to see.
Similarly, Anne-Marie Duff’s Lady Macbeth was equally as disturbed as her husband. The scene where she sleepwalks and washes her hands from murderous blood; ‘out damned spot!’, was naturally believable and shocking. She performs this scene perfectly and really shines during these scenes. The chemistry between the married couple is convincingly authentic. It is clear that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are passionately in love. However, there was nothing in Anne-Marie Duff’s performance that indicated how she convinced her husband to become a murderous villain. Personally, I believe that she wasn’t manipulative enough as a character. Despite this, there is no denying that her Lady Macbeth perfectly expressed the physical mortification of her crimes.
Unfortunately, the fine acting from Kinnear and Duff was spoiled by an obstructive, distracting setting and stage design. This production is set in a post-apocalyptic world, where the characters live in a desolate wasteland, eating from mess tins and curiously improvisational clothing. While this looks visually striking, it considerably causes the play to become confusing. Macbeth strives to be Thane and King, becoming a vicious murderer in his quest to become King. This production questions just what Macbeth will be king of… A desolate wasteland? There isn’t even a crown to be desired. Literally the only prominence of King Duncan is that he wears a red suit. There is no other motivation evident in this production for Macbeth to want to usurp the king.
Other than the superb lighting, the rest of the stage design for this production was disastrous. The set was distracting and obstructive. A vast ramp dominates the stage, yet is rarely used. It is only used as an entrance/exit and doesn’t add anything integral to the play. Large poles spring up from the stage with plastic bin liners on the top to represent trees. Actors frequently climb the ‘trees’ which is effective in certain scenes, such as the witches, but entirely distracting in others. Whenever an actor climbs a ‘tree’, there is an irritating rustling noise. This was most evident when Macbeth finds his wife’s dead body. What would be a touching, emotional scene was spoiled by someone climbing the ‘tree’ closest to where I was sat, creating a distracting rustling noise that diverted my attention and ruined the poignancy of the scene. Equally, huge drapes of plastic bin liners were used at the back of the stage to create a post-apocalyptic stage curtain. Whenever a scene change was taking place backstage, there was an annoying rustling noise protruding from backstage that was vexing to me.
In addition to this, clunky buildings adorned the set, but obstructed the audience’s view. My seat was stage-left and I struggled to see the action through the concrete walls of the buildings. Unless you were sat centre-stage, the concrete buildings blocked your view. I couldn’t see Banquo’s ghost at all as the side wall of the house hindered my view. A revolving floor was used to mitigate this problem, however, it revolved at the worst moments possible. The stage revolved during Macbeth’s soliloquies, which served as a distraction. Shakespeare’s soliloquies are designed for the audience’s attention to be solely on the character revealing their inner thoughts. However, when that character was stood on a revolving stage, that attention is broken, and the intimacy between the character and the audience during these speeches was destroyed. It was a real shame as Rory Kinnear is an accomplished Shakespearean actor who really excels in these soliloquies.
Sadly, that is not where the problems in this production end. Shakespeare’s play itself is butchered, making this Macbeth seem more like an abridged version. Entire characters such as Donalbain were brutally removed. Many of the famous lines have been savagely cut from this production, such as ‘by the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes’. When you stage a Shakespeare play, there are certain lines that the audience expect to hear and anticipate. This is one of them. It is like when Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet experimented with the placement of the ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy. I don’t mind productions being experimental, however, here it just side-lined the witches, meaning that their prophecies didn’t hold as much gravitas as they should. This further blurred the audience’s understanding of Macbeth’s motivation for killing King Duncan.
The two assassins in Macbeth were woeful. The decision to use the Geordie clown character as one of the assassins was a terrible decision as Trevor Fox remained the same character throughout. This actor warned Macduff’s wife that assassins were coming to kill her and her children; having killed Banquo in an earlier scene. It caused endless confusion. If they used the same actor for both of these roles, there needs to be a distinction that separates the different parts, rather than remaining exactly the same for both. The other assassin was a squeaky voiced actress, sporting a Joker denim jacket and was a strange blend between Harley Quinn and Bellatrix Lestrange. She wasn’t intimidating enough to play this role. The method of payment for these assassins also raised questions. It appears that they basically kill people for a can of San Pellegrino.
It is such a shame that Macbeth has so much potential due to its superb lead actors, yet is let down by poor stage design and production. I felt the same after watching Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet. They both felt like they were trying too hard on being different, without focusing on what people love so much about Shakespeare, the plays themselves! The magic of Shakespeare lies in his poetic verse, his fascinating characters and the way they represent values that are inherent in all humankind. Whether that is love, death, greed, jealousy, ambition, desire or grief, there is always a quality in Shakespeare that reflects what it is to be human. His plays have endured for over 400 years without the need for extravagant stage design.