Directed by Jamie Lloyd
Trafalgar Studios, London
15 March 2013
James McAvoy (Macbeth)
Claire Foy (Lady Macbeth)
Jamie Ballard (Macduff)
Graeme Dalling (Donalbain)
Lisa Gardner (Witch)
Kevin Guthrie (Lennox)
Richard Hansell (Ross)
Forbes Masson (Banquo)
Olivia Morgan (Witch)
Catherine Murray (Caithness)
Callum O’Neill (Angus)
Mark Quartley (Malcolm)
Hugh Ross (Duncan/Doctor).
James McAvoy has played Macbeth before. Well, nearly. He was Joe Macbeth in BBC’s Shakespeare Retold series in 2005, with Keeley Hawes as Ella Macbeth before Ashes To Ashes. That Macbeth was set in a restaurant kitchen, with Joe Macbeth as a would-be celebrity chef.
James McAvoy in “Shakespeare Retold” Macbeth, 2005
Three garbage men replace the witches, and the best line is when a chef mentions Gordon Ramsey and is told, ‘We don’t use that name in this kitchen. Didn’t your father tell you? Another adds: It’s bad luck to say it out loud. We just call him ‘The Scottish chef.’ Surprisingly given that, it’s also genuinely scary in the gory bits. When we see daggers and swords on stage, we’re removed from a society where everyone carried a knife, so it’s distanced. The violence in Shakespeare Retold: Macbeth is done with kitchen knives in a modern setting, so immediately “real.” I thought it the best idea in the series of four.
This new production at the Trafalgar Studios is … Visceral, violent, vigorous, visual, exciting, extremely physical, brutal, and also the goriest Macbeth I’ve seen. It’s strongly reminiscent of the recent Coriolanus, which was made into a film, but this has even more blood. The whole play has a strong colour palette and the look of grungy modern comic art.
It’s set in 2063, in a future independent Scotland devastated by climate change. The characters are the survivors in the wreckage fighting among themselves. The costumes are filthy, stained, torn. The word dystopia appears in all previews and many, many times in the programme. That’s quite a big deal to hang on the play, though the wars of the16th century would have been as bloody, filthy and violent. Unusually, everyone was good with their weapons, and Macbeth had an axe and a machete, and fought, wrestled, threw people around and leapt all over the place. The normal thespian wafting around with machine guns and balaclavas in modern dress Shakespeare was totally absent, but violence and action was the production’s strongest point. The witches all doubled in fight scenes, and the three women did soldierly aggression more effectively than men manage in most productions. We had great seats … the front row, and several times expected someone with a machete to land in our laps, or to get splashed with blood. So did the people opposite, but while they got within 18 inches, they never actually touched the audience.
The staging is dramatic, and “Trafalgar Transformed” is running for the season. Eighty seats were placed on the rear of the existing stage, and the whole stage raised to accommodate drains (for the blood and water!) and trapdoors, and to bring it flat to the audience. So it’s not in the round, but the audience is in two groups facing each other with the stage across the middle. There are entrances both sides, and between the rows at the rear.
McAvoy and most of the cast were Scottish accented, though MacDuff was English accented, but most productions of Shakespeare have a Scottish or Irish accent on someone, so MacDuff and The Doctor having English accents was merely the reverse. I was worried in advance about intelligibility, but as McAvoy said in interviews, it was not written in Scots dialect, so only accent was added, and at a fair level. I have to say ‘murder’ and ‘murdered’ in particular sound way more impressive in rolling Scots. I’m not sure the whole cast were all naturally Scottish. Sometimes I felt the accent didn’t benefit the lines, though it always did when McAvoy was speaking.
The horror and blood came across with total power. The cast are drenched in gore. The strangulation of Lady MacDuff, with Macbeth in a chair watching, was dramatic and realistic. The magic and wonder went out of the window somewhat in exchange. In the big witch scene in the second half, when Macbeth is warned about Burnham Wood and ‘no man born of women’ Macbeth takes the lines himself while the weird sisters stand in gas masks as if transmitting the words into his mouth.`During the scene, Macbeth is ladling liquid from their battered metal cooking pan into his mouth and then heaving and retching while holding his stomach between lines, which is the effect of mescaline before hallucinations begin. McAvoy is a brilliant heaver and retcher.
It is a tad one dimensional. Because the world of 2063 gives us a warring pack of savages, we lose the sense of the religious horror of regicide, murdering an anointed king … Duncan is merely an older and grizzlier pack member waiting to be pulled down if he hobbles slightly; nor the sense that Macbeth achieved great royal power. In such a band, top dog is always a temporary position and doesn’t come with robes or crowns. The amount of gore sloshing around and coating everyone much of the time gives a problem with lines. The Macbeths are not going to be shocked that Duncan has so much blood in him, be squeamish about smearing it on the fall guys, not is Lady Macbeth going to be disgusted about having it on her hands. When they greet each other, they don’t bother to wipe the blood of their enemies off their faces or wipe it off their hands. In stage management terms it’s remarkable how they manage to switch from completely gore-bespattered to clean so fast and so often.
Jamie Lloyd directed The Duchess of Malfi last year (see link) and that play is a sequence of killings and revenge. Macbeth has all those features, but there is more to it than the Duchess of Malfi. Or rather there should be. He also directed School for Scandal at Bath, as different as you can get.
A cast of fifteen is small (I have seen Macbeth done with nine) which means a lot of doubling, much of it done by the witches.
The lines show that the Macbeths had lost a child, and this is shown clearly and tenderly as he touches her stomach. For the second Macbeth in a row, the sexuality between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth is played down (after a run of several where it was heavily played up: ten years ago a steamy bonking session was obligatory).
McAvoy is, like most major film stars on stage, incredibly charismatic. As well as the physicality, he roars, spews, howls, spits and rages. Actually he spits a lot. Nevertheless, the final speech (the sound and fury speech) is as well done as I’ve seen it, with different phrasing and nuances too. He can go for full on action to subtlety in a split second. The whole cast were excellent.
We were lucky. For the second encore, on Comic Relief Day, the cast appeared in red noses, and James McAvoy did an appeal at the end and it was great to hear him as himself.
OTHER MACBETHS REVIEWED ON THIS BLOG:
- Macbeth, RSC 2011 Jonathan Slinger as Macbeth
- Macbeth – Tara Arts 2015 (Shakespeare’s Macbeth) on tour, Poole Lighthouse
- Macbeth, Young Vic, 2015
- Macbeth – Globe 2016, Ray Fearon as Macbeth
FOR JAMIE BALLARD, SEE:
- Measure for Measure, RSC 2012 (Angelo)
The Merchant of Venice, The RSC, 2015 (Antonio)
King John, Rose, Kingston (King John)
Macbeth, Trafalgar Studios, 2013 (MacDuff)
The White Devil, Wanamaker Playhouse 2017 (Bracciano)
For a modern update, the Trafalgar Studios has really inadequate toilets. Tiny, cramped and far too few. All West End theatres are bad compared to the provinces, but this one is bad even by West End standards!
A lot of text, but five pounds is above the going rate (four in London, three outside). It adds a great deal of back story about the climate changes between 2007 and 2063 that resulted in this wrecked Scotland. The oil has runout. It’s rather a preachy piece, but it was written by the environmental correspondent of The Guardian. There’s an essay on Hitler, Mussolini and Ceausescu. I already knew Hitler was a tyrant. There’s also a bit on fictional dystopias, which Macbeth isn’t. There’s a note on how the cast were taught about iambic pentameters. You mean they don’t teach that at drama school anymore?