Review: National Theatre Macbeth national tour 2018 at The Lowry
- Credit: Archant
The National Theatre tour of Macbeth delivers some strong performances, but overall is a little disappointing, says Kate Houghton
I am the first to admit, I much prefer a light and fluffy Shakespeare comedy to one of his deeply dark tragedies any day of the week, but I have never seen Macbeth (though I know the bones of the story) and it is on this year’s GCSE curriculum so I took my 15 year old daughter along in hopes of expanding her understanding of the play.
To an extent, this worked. She says that certain quotations fixed more firmly in her mind, certain scenes that showed Macbeth in a different light to the one they’re being taught were helpful in showing her how interpretation is so fluid and variable. She thought the inclusion of the witches and the ghosts of Banquo, Lady Macduff and Lady Macbeth in the final scene where Macbeth meets his end was very clever and indeed, we both agreed that the witches were very well done, though who knew they were pole dancers? However, she was left disappointed and puzzled over the loss of certain scenes and characters, and surprised at the irrelevant retention of others. She also needed the set explained, and the setting. It was stated objective of director Rufus Norris, to work this version so that GCSE students: “get what Shakespeare wrote, but that they’re seeing it in a context which feels like it has some relevance to them.” This only plays out if they’ve all watched the various Hollywood movie versions of The Hungergames and Divergent series, where factions battle it out in a dystopian near-future. It’s not remotely relatable to their own lives, with phones and electricity and an almost complete lack of large swords, bloodthirsty clan chiefs and witches.
For me, Shakespeare’s plays, of whatever form, have a grace and poetry even in the darkest and most bloody of scenes. I saw this only occasionally last night: most beautifully in the scene where Macbeth finds his Lady dead by her own hand. The delivery of “Out, out brief candle” was delicate and filled with grief and regret, which makes it so much more of a shame that it looked like she had killed herself in a rather unpleasant public toilet.
Not knowing the play so well, I did struggle to figure out who was who and what side they were on. The King, Duncan, was made clear from his scarlet suit and bonhomie-filled speech, but as for the rest… And then he popped up again, as Siward, whose sole purpose was to be the first man killed in the woods when the English army arrives to overthrow Macbeth. I looked it up. In the play, it’s ‘Young Siward’, a boy. Here it’s an unnamed much older man looking remarkably familiar. No, my daughter didn’t get it either, she had no idea who he was supposed to be. That bit could easily be lost and none the wiser.
All in all, Norris seems to have focused more on the delivery than the storytelling. It’s a strong story with eternal resonance, or it wouldn’t have lasted so long. Here it’s all a bit rushed, especially the dialogue. I am not ashamed to admit, I need Shakespeare to be slowed down a little, to let me keep up. It’s not modern English, my brain needs time to translate – to get the illusions, the jokes, the beautiful, clever, twisting text that the Bard runs so slickly from the tongues of his protagonists.
Some of the cast were, in this respect, better than others. Kirsty Besterman, as Lady Macbeth, played her brilliantly. Her acting skills are unquestionable, and her careful enunciation and passionate delivery of her so powerful lines really helped! Macbeth, played by Michael Nardone, was also good, though on occasion his emotion overwhelmed his ability to speak, which isn’t helpful. Lisa Zahra, as Lady Macduff, was rather good too and the sense of horror that filled the space as her murderers came forward to do their wicked deed was quite palpable. Even the hordes of teenagers went quiet.
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To summarise: useful for the multitudes of GCSE students set this text for their 2019 exams, definitely. Anything that triggers discussion and debate has to be a good thing, and it’s a grand performance they won’t forget. For the rest of us, not so sure.