Rufus Norris’ National regime was marred by several high-profile flops  in the Olivier last year. Salome , Common  and Saint George and the Dragon  all took their turn to stink out the theatre’s largest space, albeit alongside two soaraway successes in Follies  and Amadeus .
For this, the first new Olivier production in 2018, Norris has taken matters into his own hands, directing his first Shakespeare in 25 years, and only his second ever. Somewhat surprisingly, he’s gone for Macbeth, a tragedy generally suited to a smaller space, here plonked in a vast 1,150-seat amphitheatre.
At least he has two NT stalwarts to rely on in Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff. Kinnear has turned in award-winning Shakespearean performances in Hamlet and Othello in this same space, and Duff has won acclaim in both her recent National appearances: Husbands and Sons in 2015, and the car-crash Common last year.
But can RuNo stop the rot on his biggest stage? Can Kinnear and Duff breathe life into the murderous Mr and Mrs Macbeth? Will Shakespeare’s ‘Scottish play’ swell to fill the cavernous Olivier, or shrink before its might?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
Macbeth – A plastic post-apocalypse
Norris has chosen to set his Macbeth in an unspecified dystopian state, in turmoil after a catastrophic civil war. As most reviews are quick to point out, it really doesn’t look very nice at all.
“Rae Smith’s ugly-to-behold set is dominated by an oppressive backdrop of raven-black hangings (think seaweed crossed with shredded bin-liner) and distinguished by a sloping, shifting wooden walkway,” describes Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★ ). “The ambience is Mad Max meets infernal recycling pit, and a further sense of budget dystopian TV is afforded by the scavenger costuming: grubby jeans, combat gear, old coats, makeshift garments.”
“It is a low-lit mess engulfed by blunt grottiness,” writes Quentin Letts (Daily Mail, ★★ ). “The artistic aim is dystopia but the grime is so overdone that it made some audience members chuckle. Hardly a night of tragedy.”
It is “harsh to look at, lacking in light and shade” according to Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★ ), “bleak and often brutal” according to Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★ ), “aggressively ugly” according to Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★ ), and “has enough chopped-off heads and ripped-out foetuses to please the average bloodthirsty teen doing it for GCSE”, according to Ismene Brown (the Arts Desk, ★★ ).
“It is ugly to look at,” agrees Sarah Crompton (What’sOnStage, ★ ). “Presumably the intention was to fill the space; the result is to dwarf the actors. The vibe is defiantly Mad Max and post-apocalyptic.”
That’s part of the problem for some critics – the hugeness and horror of Smith’s set drown out the intricacies of Shakespeare’s tragedy. For Ann Treneman (Times, ★★ ), “the play struggles to rise about the sheer Stygian ghastliness”, while for Mark Shenton (London Theatre, ★★★ ), “the scale of the production also mitigates against the domestic intensity of much of the drama”.
“The aim, I presume, was to create an especially atmospheric Macbeth, one seeped in inky-black mystique. But unfortunately the result is bizarrely flat,” analyses Rosemary Waugh (Exeunt ). “You can feel it bowing under the pressure of this huge, heavy aesthetic, this urge to make it anything but a traditional Shakespeare.”
Amid the gloom, though, a few critics warm to Norris’ dark vision. It’s “quite cool”, even if it’s “essentially meaningless”, according to Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★ ), and according to Holly Williams (Independent, ★★★ ), this production “excels” in “atmosphere and visuals”.
Macbeth – Shakespearean strife
There are big problems with the look of the thing, then, but what about Norris’ other directorial decisions. Have we missed an insightful Shakespearean during his 25-year hiatus from the playwright’s works?
Not particularly. The reviews are a world of pain for Norris, with critics finding fault with plenty in his production. One issue is the cuts he has made to the text.
Norris “has unusual ideas on this score,” says Ian Shuttleworth (Financial Times, ★★★ ). “His revival retains the usually cut minor character Angus but excises King Duncan’s younger son Donalbain. Some of the most famous lines and even scenes are jettisoned. In more minor cuts and rewrites, metre counts for nothing.”
These cuts are “baffling” and “don’t seem to serve much purpose beyond wrestling the running time down a bit”, according to Lukowski, while for Billington, they’re typical of a production that is “indifferent to the rhythms of the language” and has a “disregard for any alternative to the military ethos”.
“What’s left is a not-very-interesting story about a man who is tricked by some weird women,” concludes Crompton. “Even the final battle scenes, played at the same dully monotonous pace as the rest of the action, are unexciting and a bit silly.”
The complaints don’t stop there. The critics are also disappointed with Norris’ treatment of the play’s supernatural and religious overtones, which “don’t seem remotely plausible as a catalyst for Macbeth’s ambition”, according to Hitchings, and particularly by the portrayal of the three witches, which is “brutally truncated” according to Crompton.
The big gripe, though, is that the dark, dystopian setting makes a mess of the play’s social and political context.
“No production of Macbeth need conjure the specifics of 11th-century Scotland, but if a director does decide to go into modern-day apocalyptic mode, they can face a losing battle (as here) defining what is being fought over, why attention is paid to hierarchies, and how any of it matters,” explains Cavendish.
“The seduction of ambition is difficult to discern in a universe that already seems ruled by violence and the dissolution of social norms,” chimes Marianka Swain (Broadway World, ★★ ). “It’s hard to get a handle on the status quo re-established at the end of this civil war – and without that, Macbeth’s murderous disruption lacks impact.”
“Where are we exactly, what sort of society is this and how did people end up here?” asks Tripney. “It’s never made clear – conceptually, it’s a dismaying muddle.”
Macbeth – Lost souls
Uh oh. Norris has fallen foul of the Olivier once again, it seems, but are his two co-stars capable of rescuing something from this wreck? Both have impressive pedigree, after all.
For some critics, Kinnear and Duff are the production’s saving grace – “neither of these fine, fierce and always ferociously intelligent actors disappoints,” claims Shenton, while Treneman concludes that the two stars she awards the production are for the cast alone.
Duff gets the lion’s share of what scant praise there is. She “makes every word vibrate with high-tension significance” according to Shuttleworth, “lives vividly in the moment” according to Billington, and is “focused and flinty”, according to Williams.
For most critics, the mercurial pair are just more collateral casualties, despite their best efforts. According to Lukowski, they “just seem to be in the wrong show”, and according to Alice Jones (The I, ★★★ ), Kinnear’s performance is just “overwhelmed by the quirk that surrounds it”.
“Kinnear battles valiantly against the relentlessly grim aesthetic,” echoes Tripney. “He can be a compelling, intelligent Shakespearean actor; in the past he’s been an eloquent Hamlet and a bullish, envy-drenched Iago. He tackles Macbeth with the same clarity of delivery, but he never digs beneath his skin.”
Some are less kind. Kinnear is “unexceptional” for Letts, “never takes us inside Macbeth’s head” according to Crompton, and “does little to convey the conscience-stricken inwardness that makes the character so complex” according to Billington.
Macbeth – is it any good?
“The worst Shakespeare production at the NT for at least a decade.” “Yet another misfire.” “The sooner it crawls back into its hole, the better.”
The reviews don’t make happy reading for RuNo. That this is his first Shakespeare for 25 years is catastrophically evident – his staging sinks beneath a moody mess of chopped-up verse and post-apocalyptic aesthetics. Kinnear and Duff save a scrap of face, but, make no mistake, the Olivier has claimed another victim.