Having studied Macbeth to death at school, and watched both of the, let’s be honest, quite tragic screen adaptations, I was keen to finally see this infamous play on the stage it was written for.
I was not disappointed, mostly. The National Theatre’s post-apocalyptic spin on the medieval Scottish classic was an interesting one, and given the recent surge in all things zombie and sci-fi in the entertainment industry, it was a very contemporary approach. The portrayal of the witches as a panoptic ethereal presence, sitting at the top of the withering trees for most of the play was a clever touch, boldly veering away from the gothic tradition.
In-keeping with the post-apocalyptic theme was the music. Its minimalistic style added a subtly sinister backing track which, for the most part, worked. However, such mellow music was not appropriate for the climactic fighting scene at the end, during which I found myself marvelling at the witches’ ability to stay up their trees, rather than the swordplay going on between Macbeth and Macduff.
the attempt to make this story contemporary came at a cost
The setting itself offered a sparse, bleak backdrop, appropriate for the tragic events of the play, and the tilted stage was a visual reminder of the shifting balance of power throughout the story. The simplicity of the lighting was too, a testament to the minimalistic and sparse approach to the play, but the blackouts and green light signifying death redressed the balance, dramatizing the most significant moments in classy, under-played way.
The cast featured many experienced on-stage actors, alongside some familiar faces from shows like Casualty and Doctor Who. However, it was clear which of the actors were more prone to stage, and who to screen. As mentioned earlier, in a play such as Macbeth it is very important to remain expressive whilst avoiding the melodramatic and farcical. However, many of the key moments of this play veered to far the other way- Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy for example was severely underplayed. Of course, Shakespeare’s language is what he is most famous for, but there is a reason his stories were written as plays and not prose- they were designed to be performed and not simply read aloud. Having said this, Macbeth’s soliloquist after his wife’s death was performed absolutely breath-takingly- hats off to you, sir.
Overall, this performance was very innovative and the balance between subtlety and drama was maintained. However, the attempt to make this story contemporary came at a cost, not least with the controversial omission of the famous lines ‘Double, double, toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble’. Yes, not the most modern of concepts- three witches stirring a cauldron and speaking in rhyming couplets- but they are nonetheless one of the reasons why this play is so famous.
There were moments of sheer excellence- I was welling up after the death of Macduff’s family, and we were shivering after the Macbeth’s genuinely terrifying second visit to the ‘weird sisters’, featuring some truly harrowing doll’s faces. However, some fine trimming is needed to make this performance a rounded success, not least the timing of the interval, leading to a two-and-a-half hour first half and a short forty-minute splurge at the end. A necessary first step in the contemporising of our beloved Scottish play, in need of a little fine-tuning.