Macbeth – Review – Hull New Theatre
By James Robinson, February 2019
It is part of the genius inherent in Shakespeare’s plays that they are so open to wild and unlikely re-interpretations. When it comes to Macbeth, there are probably as many adaptations set in office blocks or frontier towns as there are in 11th Century Scotland. Somehow this bloody tale of violent ambition remains relevant wherever it is deemed to take place – even, as in Rufus Norris’ new production being toured by the National Theatre, a weird and retro dystopia.
According to the programme, this latest iteration of the Scottish Play’s setting is ‘now, after a civil war’. It’s evidently been one Hell of a civil war too, reducing the country to nothing more than three tall trees and a strange wooden hill that steams in a sinister fashion as the audience takes their seats.
“In every sense fantastic”
Almost all of the action takes place in these environs, the hill sliding across the stage every so often to suggest a scene change. Occasionally a stark prop or minimal bit of background will be wheeled on for a little extra texture. This is a production that met with considerably mixed reviews on its London debut last year, but the set design by Rae Smith (whose other credits include the multi-award winning War Horse) is in every sense fantastic – so fantastic in fact that its dynamism sometimes overshadows the action taking place in the foreground.
The costume design, too, is very arresting: the young cast done up in oversized leather jackets, baseball caps and fat trainers; the soldiers of Scotland’s army re-imagined as urban hoodlums, although very much a theatre director’s idea of urban hoodlums, ones you might find in a 1980s music video, more likely to dance an enemy to death than actually hurt them.
Nevertheless events do begin in an agreeably violent fashion. The murder of Macdonwald which opens the play comes complete with a gory decapitation – a special effect so clever it crops up again later on.
Meanwhile the Weird Sisters emerge and climb those deathly trees, contorting themselves into disturbing shapes like demonic pole dancers. Every one of the witches’ scenes are incredibly atmospheric, their dialogue echoing through the theatre, backed by an unsettling drone, so it’s disappointing that most of their dialogue has been truncated. There’s no ‘double, double, toil and trouble’ to be heard here.
Michael Nardone, when he first appears, seems an unlikely Macbeth. With a wobbly belly peeping out from under a grubby t-shirt he’s hardly the vision of a battle-hardened general. He delivers his lines, too, in a seemingly off-hand manner. His Macbeth is a bit of a lug; a dope who seems ill-at-ease even before he gets into the regicide business. It’s the machinations of Lady Macbeth that are placed firmly in the foreground. Kirsty Besterman plays up the contrast with her awkward husband by adopting a brilliantly sour poise and delivering her lines with cold authority.
However it’s Patrick Robinson (best known as Casualty’s Ash Ashford) who stands out with a charismatic take on Banquo. He steals every scene he appears in, a theft which is particularly impressive considering that for much of the second half he is only a mute yet menacing spectre.
Aside from these three major players, most of the rest of the cast are hard to tell apart. Although Macbeth is arguably every schoolkids’ favourite, this is an adaptation that expects its audience to have done its revision. Many of the asides that help keep the audience up to speed in the full text have been lopped off along with most of the three witches’ speeches. As a result it’s not always easy to keep up with who’s who. One spiky haired teenage gangbanger looks much like another, and I have to confess that every so often I became completely lost.
For all the intrigue and morbid pontificating, it’s the head-loppings, sword-fights and visions of two-headed demons dangling babies that linger in the memory of this visually stylish but not entirely convincing take on the fathomless classic.