Why does a sane, successful army man heed a politically dubious, supernatural prophecy and then immediately act upon it? That’s the question facing anyone directing “Macbeth.” The unusually convincing answer from helmer Jamie Lloyd is: Youth. James McAvoy’s Macbeth is as heedless of thought as any young fighting man. He’s absolutely the center of this bloody horror show and it’s to Lloyd’s immense credit that his violently dystopic interpretation ultimately feels inevitable as it shines light into the play’s often unplumbed depths.
Designer Soutra Gilmour locks audiences onto two sides of her newly built traverse stage with multiple entrances allowing for sudden entrances and swift exits — in part, a metaphor for the play. Her war-torn, post-apocalyptic presentation sees the actors in grunge-style combat-wear in a world topped off by broken-glass windows above makeshift furniture in ramshackle military encampments. The immediacy of it all makes audiences feel thrillingly — and dangerously — complicit.
Adam Silverman’s caustic lighting and Alex Baranowski’s soundscape of industrial-style growls and metallic stings ramp up the sense of paranoia to such an extent that one of the many fears initially conjured is that atmosphere will swamp the text. But Lloyd is canny. His headlong, breathless opening — with notably fierce, faceless witches in gas masks — delivers short, sharp shocks. Then, having established such high stakes, he can adopt a slower pace in the establishing scenes that follow, thereby allowing for rare clarity in the storytelling.
The knock-on effect is that in a play traditionally bound-up in the tension between Macbeth and his wife, the surrounding characters emerge more strongly, creating a much more fully woven texture.
As is often the case, Macduff comes close to stealing the second act with Jamie Ballard beautifully calibrating his emotional response to the news of the murder of his wife and children. But often under-realized characters also shine here, notably Hugh Ross’ wisely benevolent Duncan. His calm generosity makes his murder much more upsetting. That in turn ups the sense of difficulty and terror that proceeds to engulf the Macbeths.
Lean and taut with purpose, Claire Foy’s Lady Macbeth wastes no time in deliberation, but she never descends into mere briskness. Indeed, long-held stares between her and her husband across the width of the stage convey an acute sense of loss between them — a child, maybe? — and a ravening need for sexual or, at the very least, emotional connection.
That desire, and Macbeth’s mounting inability either to fulfill or to quench it, is a permanent undercurrent to McAvoy’s performance. He charts Macbeth’s “growth” from a warrior elated by blood lust to a man committing unspeakable acts who is self-aware enough to be grimly determined. Quivering with rage or, for the brutal murder of Lady Macduff and her son, icily stilled by viciousness, he powerfully conveys a man increasingly desperate to stop himself heeding the thoughts and fears threatening to overwhelm him.
Highly effective fight and movement direction by Kate Waters and Ann Yee make the confrontations not just bloody and violent but as difficult to watch as they should be. That’s a risky approach but it pays off by forcing audiences not just to recognize but to feel the consequences of unspeakable actions.
The gore level is high and the impact throughout is visceral. This plays well to a moviegoing younger generation which Lloyd’s new four-production season is aiming to encourage into the theater. But nothing comes at the text’s expense and the cumulative effect heightens the drama. When a blood-drenched Macduff brandishes Macbeth’s head, the house is chilled with none of the attendant sounds of embarrassment that usually accompany such huge gestures.
In his final scenes, McAvoy looks gaunt, hollowed out by horrified self-understanding that makes him shake with silent laughter. It’s scary for being so unexpected a move. Its audacity matches a production intent upon showing not its own imagination but Shakespeare’s.