A stage of classroom chairs, a porta-cabin house painted in a dim yellow, and a dishevelled, unkempt cast are not what one would expect from a production of Macbeth at the National Theatre. Far from the opulence and wealth that traditionally characterise Macbeth, Rufus Norris’ version is sparse and bare.
Yet Norris’ decision to lay the stage bare, to have Duncan, who is supposedly the king, wearing a cheap, untailored crimson suit on an otherwise dark stage is an overt reflection of Macbeth’s deceit. Duncan’s throne, a plastic chair, more reminiscent of a primary school than a castle, is worn down and blackened with age. A spare suit, exactly the same as the one he wears, lies to one side, as if his royal outfit were a uniform rather than an emblem of his power. Plastic coverings protect both the throne and the spare suit – protection against the threat of deceit, perhaps.
Yet Duncan is, although he does not know it, exposed. In a party reminiscent of Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby, there is music pounding from a speaker, alcohol flowing freely, as guests pound their cups to the beat, and Duncan obliviously dances away. However, Lady Macbeth doesn’t sit quietly in a corner, for she is no longer the silent partner in her collusion with Macbeth – while Macbeth looks on terrified, Lady Macbeth embraces Duncan into her home.
She entertains him, she dances, she flirts, she knows full well what she is doing, and as her husband looks on, physically sickened by the task before him, Lady Macbeth revels in the knowledge that the man she is dancing with will be dead come the morning. She dons a green coat, concealing her nimble frame and her fragility, providing her with physical strength, but also disguising her mal-intent: she is the one controlling the play. The audience knows it: as she dances, she pushes bits of the set away; she is the one in control of the fast-moving, dynamic stage. Each of the sudden changes, the bursts of music, abrupt though they may seem, are hers.
Anne-Marie Duff, as Lady Macbeth, is able to command the audience and the stage in a way that Kinnear cannot. Indeed, as Macbeth is torn, so too is the actor that plays him – Kinnear appears torn between a loyalty to Shakespeare’s original script and Norris’ desire to make it his own. Macbeth’s soliloquy is literally broken apart by movements of the stage and Kinnear appears a weak Macbeth, confused from the offset.
Duff’s Lady Macbeth, however, passionately kisses her husband, strokes his chest, lays her leg over his. She knows what she is doing, and just as she manipulates Duncan, she manipulates her husband. Norris’ production is a moving theatrical piece that allows Lady Macbeth to be the puppeteer she has so desperately always wanted to be.
Occasionally, the play’s delivery may have appeared abrupt, rushed, and rough around the edges, compressing, condensing and missing lines. The dynamics of the stage, however, and the juxtaposition of the dire setting with Duncan’s royal title lay bare the reality, that Lady Macbeth controls the stage, controls the action, and controls all the men, including her husband.