Theatre review: Macbeth, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Brad Morrison, Helen Katamba and Michael Nardone in Macbeth
Brad Morrison, Helen Katamba and Michael Nardone in Macbeth
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Shakespeare says that Macbeth’s first encounter with the witches takes place on a “blasted heath”; but in this controversial production by National Theatre artistic director Rufus Norris, now on tour around the UK, the landscape - while certainly blasted by civil war - is not so much a heath as a lifeless grove of discarded plastic, with forests of black bin-bag material trailing from a dark sky. In a Macbeth full of powerful visual references to recent civil wars, Macbeth and his warriors appear in modern battle fatigues, with stab vests and camouflage jackets; and his lady, waiting for him at home in a concrete bunker, is in jeans and t-shirt, with a knife in her back pocket, against the dangers of a world where there is never any freedom from the threat of sudden violence.

Macbeth, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh ***

It’s a powerful concept; but it perhaps needs a more rigorous, complete and insightful working-out than it receives, in a National Theatre production that offers a great deal to enjoy, but plenty to question. Its main assets are Rae Smith’s bleak but striking set, dominated by a great metal ramp, which received much criticism in London, but which seems to benefit - under Paul Pyant’s dramatic lighting design - from the shift to a proscenium arch theatre; and an impressive, driving sense of pace, which compresses the whole evening - including an interval - into less than two and a half hours, and fully exploits the riveting intensity of the story of Macbeth’s rise and fall.

Its main weakness, on the other hand, lies in its failure to make its central concept work in the detail of the leading performances, and in harmony with Shakespeare’s breathtakingly intense and lurid poetry. Michael Nardone’s Macbeth seems like a hard-working man of action promoted beyond his ability because of his wife’s ambition, and apologetic - almost to the point of playing for laughs - about the vividness of the nightmarish inner life that plagues him. There’s plenty of fear, anxiety and violence, but no grandeur, and therefore no real pathos; and from Kirsty Besterman’s increasingly poignant Lady Macbeth to Patrick Robinson’s commanding Banquo, the actors often seem to be ploughing a lonely furrow in trying to make sense of their characters, and of the poetry of their lines, against this bitter contemporary backdrop.

It is always interesting and exciting to see a powerful 18-strong National Theatre company tackling one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays; particularly when they power through the narrative with so much energy and drive. This is a production, though, that misses whole dimensions of Shakespeare’s play; strong, interesting, and thought-provoking, but partial, and therefore never quite satisfying. - Joyce McMillan

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, until 27 October; His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, 7-10 November; Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 19-23 February.