“Is it set in the future?” a colleague asked mockingly of the National Theatre’s new Macbeth. To which the answer is yes, kind of. A near future, possibly, or an alternative present: set designer Rae Smith has created a post-apocalyptic wasteland of concrete and metal, where thanes fight in grey jeans, and battle armour consists of slabs of tin held on with parcel tape. It’s Mad Max with machetes. But it works.
Thrusting onto the stage is a hefty metal ramp, down which Macbeth charges in the opening scene. His first act is to hack off the rebel Macdonwald’s head, shove it in a carrier bag and hang it from a pole (neatly prefiguring his own fate much later).
That sets the tone for a production full of jagged edges and raw set pieces. Dunsinane resembles the ruined corner of a housing estate. The banquet scene involves six guests gathered in what could be a bus shelter. Banquo’s ghost, when he appears, staggers and jerks like a zombie. This is a hellish world where “Nothing is but what is not.”
The trouble is, bold production design is no good if your leads don’t fill it. On that front Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff give intelligent, angst-ridden performances. But they never convince you they’re Alpha overlords bent on a bloody coup d’état.
Or that they’re haunted by horrors. In the aftermath of Duncan’s murder, they have more the air of a middle-class couple whose weekend house party has gone frightfully wrong. Look –blood everywhere!
Coming from Kinnear, Macbeth’s anguished speeches sound less like moans of despair than so much hand-wringing rhetoric. We see pained regret at a botched piece of statecraft, rather than a soul in torment.
Kinnear is an actor who can make eloquent sense of a line, but we don’t get the feeling here that his Macbeth is a great soul laid low by baser instincts, more an exasperated middle manager.
In a different production, one set in a contemporary corporate world, say, these Macbeths could make sense, but they feel cut adrift in the Olivier’s grim, post-industrial dystopia.
Having said that, the production produces moments of grim magic. The scene where Macbeth cradles his wife’s dead body (“Out, out brief candle”) is powerfully awful, as is the ghostly parade of future kings the witches show him – shuffling figures with faces on the backs of their heads.
Best of all, director Rufus Norris has found a way to reinvent the Porter – often a mood-wrecking comic interloper – as a central figure. By melding him with other attendants the Porter becomes a chorus figure who alone witnesses the chain of deaths, and as played here by Trevor Fox with a wry Geordie accent, a distant relative, perhaps, of the Fool in King Lear.
Overall the story has a properly nightmarish mood – helped by deft touches in the costumes: dolls’ limbs hang from the witches’ clothes and Duncan wears a blood-red kingly suit.
If it rarely reaches the kind of visceral horror you hope for, there’s still plenty to dread, and clarity of delivery and line-reading that makes the text sing.
Also, it’s worth noting that if you can’t make it to the Olivier, the production will be broadcast to cinemas by National Theatre Live on 10 May.
Macbeth is at the National's Oliver Theatre until 23 June