Here’s a real witches brew: a “Macbeth” so mangled it makes Hamlet look sane. For his first foray into Shakespeare’s Folio in 25 years, director Rufus Norris, also the artistic director of the National Theatre, has gone full-metal “Mad Max,” yanking the Scottish play out of its old, feudal state and dumping it down in some lawless, fallen future. This is a post-apocalyptic “Macbeth” of the sort Cormac McCarthy would fashion out of rusty cans and a stash of old coats. If it’s a vision of Brexit Britain, well, it looks a bit bleak. We’re leaving the European Union, not civilization itself.
Norris’s point, presumably, is that human power-play will continue long after the whole power system’s gone down. Vaulting ambition is in our very nature, whether or not there’s anything worth vaulting for. First seen beheading some poor bloke on the run, Rory Kinnear’s gruff, nutcase Macbeth looks like a cutthroat barbarian fighting for scraps, even if he speaks like a toff trying to blend in at the barber’s. In hacking his way to the crown, bumping off anyone that stands in his way, he gains next to nothing: a red suit instead of old rags, a slightly bigger concrete bunker for him and his wife. He ends up top dog among starving mongrels and strays. The crown, you think, can’t be worth the candle, but for this Macbeth and Annie-Marie Duff’s manic-pixie Lady Macbeth, it still holds its allure.
It’s so outright barmy that it’s hard to know whether it’s brave, bold or baloney. Norris has taken a play best compressed into a taut psychological drama and blown it up into something operatically overblown. Designer Rae Smith swamps the stage in black plastic – like liquid chaos bubbling up across Britain or the wings of a giant, ominous bat enfolded around it. A vast, curved wooden bridge swings across the stage like a deathtrap. It’s half hellish, half arts-and-crafts, so what ought to be eerie only ever feels effortful. The witches glitch, tick and whistle like three broken clocks. One sprints around like a cyclone, clucking ‘Mac/beth’; another’s still and starey as a high school goth; the third’s strewn with plastic doll limbs — three clichés untimely ripped from horror flicks. The production conjures neither a credible collapsed state nor a knowing genre rip-off.
Macbeth is the ultimate social climber – a craven man who kills his way to power. Take the social order away and he’s left with nothing to climb and no compunctions to stop him. If Macbeth is a savage in a savage world, he stops making sense. In a single fell swoop, Norris strips out the play’s stakes, obstacles and motivation.
Why aspire to be king when there’s no such thing as a kingdom? Stephen Boxer’s Duncan has no more power, wealth or security than anyone else in this godforsaken land. Why not murder if it’s a dog-eat-dog, kill-or-be-killed world? And why worry about the repercussions of that when death’s an inevitability? Kinnear’s Macbeth looks like he’s meandering in a maelstrom, and as Lady Macbeth, Duff all but goes missing. Of course she does. How do you spur your husband into action when action is the only course of survival? In a tattered pink ballgown, Duff ends up chattering to herself.
In embracing the play’s chaos, swirling murder and supernatural powers, Norris only succeeds in making it feels shapeless. Doing so strips the tragedy of all its trajectory, and so Shakespeare’s play simply stops making sense. Unnecessary, almost arbitrary textual cuts don’t help, but this motiveless “Macbeth” is a real mess.