Venue: Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
Date: 25th October 2018
Director: Rufus Norris
Composer: Orlando Gough
Principal cast: Michael Nardone (Macbeth), Kirsty Besterman (Lady Macbeth), Ross Waiton (Macduff), & Patrick Robinson (Banquo)
This was a unique and striking take on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. With a story as iconic as they come, it can be difficult to create something that feels fresh, without deviating from the source material, but I think The National Theatre managed to do so here with aplomb. Though it very much honours the original script (of course, changing Shakespeare’s words would be tantamount to treason in most circles), the setting and timeframe have been completely reimagined. Forget sumptuous castles and sweeping heaths. This production is set in a bleak, modern, post-apocalyptic landscape that has been ravaged by civil war; cloaks and crowns ditched in favour of torn jeans and army fatigues; grand halls replaced by battered bunkers and whatever shabby supplies can be scraped together.
The first thing this does is add a heightened sense of desperation to the characters. The impression is that they are the figureheads of the decimated few that remain, making their insatiable hunger for power seem all the more frivolous and misguided. Strong performances from the lead cast allow this theme to really resonate. It’s a very visceral production, however, and it’s the sensory elements that become the real stars of the show. Imposing set design, great lighting, and a score that is at times unsettlingly eerie, all add real atmosphere; with haunting imagery and sound design during the witches’ scenes proving particularly effective.
Some may find the contrast between archaic Shakespearean language and alarmingly modern visuals somewhat jarring, but to me it instantly highlighted how timeless the show’s themes of power, greed, and corruption in times of conflict truly are. By making the narrative feel more immediate and recognisable, it adds a layer of discomfort to the story, allowing it to hit a little closer to home. We live in a time of fear and paranoia; political point scoring, and angry border disputes. By reimagining Macbeth’s story in a world frighteningly like the one we’re descending into (the staging not unlike scenes unfolding in places like Syria), it takes on a new sense of urgency, and perhaps even poignancy; all without altering The Bard’s actual words. This is a Macbeth for the modern age; its cautionary message about the pitfalls of selfishly chasing supremacy more familiar than ever.
The show is currently touring the UK and Ireland with a new cast, following a sold-out run in London. Here’s a trailer of the original production to give you a flavour of what it’s like.