Maisie Linford, Contributor.
The stalls of Belfast’s Grand Opera House are packed with local high-school students, many witnessing their first staging of the Bard. They rustle sweets, catch up on gossip and take selfies with the set. They remind me of my first trips to the theatre. Like them, I studied Macbeth at GCSE, then again for my undergraduate in literature. Anyone studying theatre will know the importance of seeing it staged to properly understand the work within its context, so with this limited run of the National Theatre’s production having only two days left in Belfast, the show comes highly recommend for any scholars of drama, history or politics, at least to broaden an understanding and new interpretation of the play.
In a recent interview with the Irish News, Rufus Norris, Director of the National Theatre explained he was happy to be staging a play on the curriculum but that his intention was “to give audiences a fresh and dynamic view of this timeless classic”. The interview emphasised Norris’ previous political theatre credentials following the 2016 referendum as he commissioned and directed Carol Anne Duffy’s My Country; a work in progress (staged at Derry’s Playhouse). This production certainly works in conversation with that, bringing the political tensions of Macbeth to the forefront setting the production “now, after a civil war” which we might be expected to imagine as a post-Brexit apocalypse.
The action begins with two masked balaclava men decapitating someone. The costume could be a nod towards the conflicts here in Northern Ireland, or to the barbarity of Islamic State, both concepts bringing the historical and political context to the forefront. The program emphasises the play as being penned for protestant convert King James I, descendent of Banquo, who “shalt get kings, though thou be none” to affirm his entitlement to the throne. In today’s context whose entitlement to reaffirm is unclear, however writing on this production’s relevance today Marina Warner claims “Ferocious religious tensions have returned as casus belli, disunity threatens the United Kingdom, and ambitious leaders incite continual conflicts in government.” In this interpretation Macbeth offers a look into the future, not the past.
Looking at the bin-bag strewn set with a big ramp centre stage and the palace as a bunker, it’s clear that this production is unconventional, but this is not always a good thing. In many ways the set and costume can be distracting from the meaning of the play. Particularly disruptive are the party scenes that tip into the ridiculous, with characters drinking from traffic cones and petrol canisters wearing beanie hats and cargo –the audience wonders if the kingdom is even worth it, regardless of Macbeth’s intended struggle with not having an heir. Maybe that’s the point? Further disappointing is the casting of Michael Nardone as Macbeth. Nardone may be a talented actor, but does not have the same tradition in performing Shakespeare as National Theatre veteran Rory Kinnear who played the role in London. Often the soliloquies feel more like something for the actor to get through, than an opportunity to showcase his talent. His performance is best exploited in reaction to the rest of the cast, making the production feel more like an ensemble piece with strong performances across the eighteen-piece cast.
The production draws on imagery and motifs that underscore the potential for horror and the sound design is a testament to the skill of Paul Arditti, which with a more stripped back set might be given more room to breathe but is nevertheless chilling. Jazz tunes from Orlando Gough and Marc Tristchler’s composition set the pace and create a noticeable tension. The wyrd sisters played by Elizabeth Chan, Frances Mayli McCann and Evelyn Roberts are eerie as they clamber around the set and stare at Macbeth, as are Lisa Zahra, as the haunting Lady Macduff and Patrick Robinson as Banquo. The second act moves more fluidly than the first, perhaps because of getting over the setting or because the wasteland becomes more recognisable as the action descends into civil war.
It’s certainly an interpretation of Macbeth and students going to see it should be prepared for that. This is the first Shakespeare play Norris has directed in 25 years, perhaps out of embarrassment to the guaranteed audiences studying Shakespeare he felt obliged to be experimental to make his mark. While I’m not condoning every performance be staged in a Jacobean style, there are more imaginative ways of representing a post-conflict society to get a point across. The overloaded staging and over-politicising may have lost some of the heart of what Shakespeare wrote, but it also offered evidence to the lasting versatility of a text that has been studied and staged a million times over. What’s done is done.