Robert Tanitch reviews Macbeth at National Theatre/Olivier
Macbeth has been adapted and “improved” many times since its premiere in 1606. There have been operas (the best is by Verdi.) There have been films (the best is directed by Roman Polanski).
Macbeth is the shortest and most concentrated of Shakespeare’s plays and has always attracted great actors.
The play can be set in any period from 1040 to the present day and works best played at speed without an interval.
Rufus Norris sets it in an ugly dystopian future which is no help at all. The play is much diminished and there is no tragedy.
There is a huge raised metallic rampart and huge black plastic drapes fill the back of the Olivier stage.
The Macbeths live in a dirty bunker.
King Duncan is, nevertheless, impressed “This castle hath a pleasant seat; the air/ Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself/ Unto our gentle sense.”
Duncan is absurd. Talk of “castles” and “chambers” is just silly in the present context.
Even sillier is Lady Macbeth’s suggestion (after the murder) that Macbeth should put on a “nightgown” to avoid rousing suspicion.
The coronation banquet takes place in one of those cabins you find on building sites. You wonder why Lady Macbeth (Anne-Marie Duff) has bothered to dress up. However, once Macbeth starts seeing Banquo’s ghost the scene comes alive and Rory Kinnear can let rip.
Malcolm has lost not only his brother but also much of his dialogue in his scene in England. His test of Macduff’s loyalty is cut completely.
The final battle scene has some innovations, too. Most notably there is no Birnam Wood on the march to Dunsinane and Macbeth’s armour is in such bad condition that it is held together by parcel tape.
The three witches hover high up on poles like Chinese acrobats. The ghost of Lady Macduff comes on to give her husband moral support when it looks like Macbeth might kill him rather than the other way round.
Macbeth’s head is chopped off on stage. This is a pretty brave on the part of Kinnear when you consider The Scottish Play is notorious for its mishaps, disasters and serious stage accidents.