When fair is foul: The NT Live Macbeth

Macbeth can be a lot of different plays, depending on the choices of the people mounting it. It can be a meditation on the role of fate and portent; a dissection of political authority; an examination of the nature of evil; a case study in the self-destruction of the powerful; it can be spooky; or it can just be beautiful blank verse, as almost every page of the script holds familiar lines or monologues. It’s Rufus Norris’ achievement that he inexplicably manages not to hit any of these notes for more than thirty seconds in a staging that, despite the blood it paints on its characters in nearly every scene, is often boring. When a short feature preceding the broadcast informs us that the staging draws on the bloody end phase of a modern civil war (à la Syria), I’m already skeptical, as this parallel is historically bizarre. But the only place where we actually notice this theme anyway is when Macbeth’s armor has to be taped together (which would indeed be completely inexplicable without the feature ahead of time) and (potentially) when we see an actor (Nadia Albina playing the Gentlewoman) without a right forearm. Usually, my feeling about theater is that it should show rather than tell us and when it needs to tell us what it’s saying, it’s in trouble. But this production can’t even really tell us what it’s saying.

It takes real skill and effort to build tempo problems into Macbeth. Norris shortens the script significantly — removing most of the spooky and mysterious elements of the story in a way that undermines the credibility of the play’s conclusion. The interval is placed after Act Three, which makes for a very long sit. Pushing Duncan’s murder into the foreground this way would theoretically not be a bad choice given the long first half, but if we are truly to pay attention for approaching two hours, we need a more gradual arc into the tension. Les Macbeth have to believe at least briefly that they can get away with it; they must be more cunning and less angry, more sane and less crazy. The tension and insanity have to build gradually over the half. Here, however, the murder immediately ramps everyone into full tension — which has to last something over 45 minutes and just isn’t tenable for the spectator. As a result, I found my attention waning just as the dinner scene (Act III, scene iv) began, which was disastrous — because this staging of the play absolutely requires that Banquo’s reappearance as a ghost, and Macbeth’s response, keep the audience gasping and eager for the resumption of the play.

Then there was a 20 minute interval, and another feature advertising future NT Live events. Even if I’d been able to hang onto the feeling from the first half, it would have been gone after all that. But the second half of the play is also largely devoid of energy, which is simply bizarre in a play that needs to accelerate inexorably to the assassination of its protagonist. The reunion with the witches is lacks all atmosphere, with the dialogue cut down in favor of a procession of tweeish ghosts (you would never know these were Banquo’s offspring unless you knew the play already). Lady Macbeth’s mad scene is mostly a throwaway, as Anne-Marie Duff already reached peak crazy during the first half and has nowhere left to go, emotionally. Macbeth’s monologue afterwards is inexplicably split in half, robbing it of all meaning and the character of the little remaining depth he has. Given that the play spends so little time giving its supernatural elements any credibility, Macbeth’s repeated assertions that the weird sisters’ prophecy will protect him also end more or less in the sand. In the end, I’d say there are only a handful of scenes in the play that really work: Macbeth’s initial encounter with the witches (Act I, scene i); Banquo’s murder (Act III, scene iii); the warning to Lady Macduff,and her murder (Act IV, scene ii); and Macduff’s receipt of this news and the decision to proceed against Macbeth (Act IV, scene iii).

I’ve read repeatedly how talented Rory Kinnear is and I’m willing to believe it, but this performance is disastrous. Imagine George Costanza (from Seinfeld) playing Macbeth and this is what you get. His diction is fantastic, but his delivery reveals no sense of the rhythm of blank verse at all, which spoils a lot of the character’s best moments and speeches, and he seems to be suffering from a tremor akin to cocaine withdrawal. Anne-Marie Duff as Lady Macbeth is similarly herky-jerky; she’s wasted in this production, though, despite a face with features that looks perfect to play the lady’s descent into madness. In general, almost all of the actors who use their hands use them badly (the main exception is Parth Thakerar as Malcolm). And as this is my third NT Live performance, I’m starting to think that the supporting cast will always be better than the leads (the best performances here come from Kevin Harvey as Banquo and Patrick O’Kane as Macduff) and the non-white actors will have more sonorous voices and better diction than the white ones will (true throughout this play, as in both Hamlet and Julius Caesar).

What a disappointment. I learned, though, that NT Live is broadcasting Ian McKellen’s Lear this fall. I hope it makes it here.

~ by Servetus on May 18, 2018.

7 Responses to “When fair is foul: The NT Live Macbeth”

  1. Thank you for this. I was interested in seeing this play at my local theatre but had a conflict with the date of showing. I had never seen Macbeth on stage before but now I don’t feel too disappointed that I missed this production. Actually, Rory Kinnear was the main reason I wanted to see it. I believe he was an Olivier award winner for best actor a few years back. He was fantastic in The Hollow Crown and I really enjoyed his performance in the series Penny Dreadful. Sorry to hear this wasn’t a good performance.
    Will be watching for McKellen in Lear. Fingers crossed it comes here.


    • This year’s “other” Macbeth — Eccleston at the RSC — is also supposed to be not very good. Luckily for us, I think Macbeth is a popular enough play that they will continue to make these transmissions of it as other artists do it.

      I think they just announced the Lear broadcast — because I was looking at the NT Live map and so far only four theaters had signed up. It must be early days still.


  2. That doesn’t sound like a very good production. I see it’s playing here in June. My son is reading Macbeth at school this year, so I thought of taking him. But sounds like it is not a good representation of the work.


    • I don’t think I’d take a teen to this version of it. If I were taking my nieces, I’d choose one of the versions that played up the supernatural. But this one is just — it’s not really about anything.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. […] take him to see a performance. I thought about the National Theatre Live showing, but after reading Serv’s review, I decided to give it a miss. As luck would have it, though, Macbeth is one of this year’s […]


  4. […] is that (yet again — like McKellen’s Lear, like Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, like Norris’ Macbeth) this seems to be a Shakespeare production that isn’t really “about” anything, at […]


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