Review: National Theatre’s Macbeth at The Lowry

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Modernising Shakespeare texts is not unusual. Sometimes the results can be utterly thrilling.

London’s Bridge Theatre recently staged Julius Caesar, and there were references to Trump, rock music and the audience became spectators during the rallies. The contemporary setting had a clear purpose and the result was a piece of incredible theatre.

Director Rufus Norris has attempted something similar here but with very different results.

Macbeth has elements that you cannot remove without losing sight of the point of the play and the motivational desires of the characters.

Rae Smith’s set design is stunning, as it feels dystopian and stark and has such depth, that it gives the piece a film-like quality. But it also jars.

Although the setting for this production is a Mad Max-style world, some characters resemble walkers in search of a country pub, their attire suggesting they have been ordering clothes from a Land’s End catalogue on a slow and boring Sunday afternoon.

Pic BrinkhoffMogenburg

Lady Macbeth – usually a fascinating character – loses her regality because she is adorned in a vest top and a pair of army trousers.

Luckily, Kirsty Besterman is a strident presence and plays this manipulative character as a puppet master, controlling all around her, and holding no prisoners. The famous blood on her hands scene is understated, and this great actor is completely watchable throughout. Even when this production fails, she holds it together.

Other performances vary so much in style and tone it’s as if the actors are starring in different productions.

Michael Nardone’s Macbeth has the strangest of accents which this wavers throughout, meaning that some of the language is lost. He is dressed like a pimp in an episode of Cagney and Lacey and in his solo scenes, where there should be some menace and humour, he comes across like Paul Hollywood judging a custard tart competition for Channel 5, wandering up and down the vast stage, with no real purpose.

Patrick Robinson’s Banquo is excellent and has the required malevolence required when he returns to haunt Macbeth. The witches climb up and down trees which resemble giant ugly mops but add nothing to the plot. It feels like a Cirque de Soleil production of  Shakespeare. Paul Arditti’s sound design provides them with a haunting sound but there is nothing truly sinister at play here.

Some laughable dolls head masks attempt to scare, but the only truly scary thing here is the amount of money spent on this production.

The tone of this production is all over the place. When it should be funny you don’t hear laughter from the stalls. When something shocking is taking place, the strangest music is used, meaning that it then feels like a dubbed film and you end up laughing. There are some great scenes in Macbeth but so many are rushed where there needs to be time to contemplate. Others drag on and on.

The National Theatre is the home of War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, truly stunning productions which have been seen all over the world. These two were based on books, and both are incredibly innovative and bring new audiences to the theatre.

This misfire does raise some interesting questions, but more about theatre in general than those within the narrative. Are there too many Shakespeare productions staged when there are so many great writers out there?

If you are going to modernise a classic text, do it with a genuine purpose, otherwise the meaning is lost.

Sadly, this production is so muddled that if you have never seen Macbeth before, you will struggle to know what is going on. And if you have seen it or read the text, you will be watching through your hands and wondering how on earth it got the green light.

“Double, double, toil and trouble…” indeed.

Macbeth is at The Lowry until Saturday 6th October.

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