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Stage Review: Macbeth

Rory Kinnear plays Macbeth at the Royal National Theatre, London. Picture: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg - Credit: Archant

It takes some arrogance to rewrite Shakespeare, says TIM WALKER.

The sheer size of the National Theatre’s Olivier stage seems to have thrown everyone involved in this production of Macbeth into a state of utter panic.

Set designer Rae Smith tries to make it feel more manageable by throwing down several vast curtains of cheap paper taffeta. She then gets it into her head to plonk what looks like a vast underpass from the M25 in the middle and have the actors scurry up and down it. She also erects a succession of ugly little railway station waiting rooms for them to play out a great many of their big scenes.

All of this toil and trouble seems to be a tacit admission by Smith and the director Rufus Norris that Rory Kinnear, the actor in the title role, hasn’t the personality to fill the stage on his own. This is a pity because you can’t have a production of Macbeth without a dominating Macbeth any more than you can have a Hamlet without the prince.

The penny-dreadful horrors that Norris elects to invest his production with make it harder still to concentrate and even had some punters tittering: there are people wandering around with decapitated heads in carrier bags and zombie-like creatures going hither and thither. The costumes don’t help, either – pure grunge, provided by none other than a man named Moritz Junge.

Kinnear was a big favourite of Sir Nicholas Hytner during his period in charge of the National, appearing in one production after and another, but the actor has since switched the emphasis in his career to television sitcoms, such as Count Arthur Strong, and the recurring role of Bill Tanner in the James Bond films.

It was a shrewd move since screen close-ups play to all of Kinnear’s strengths – the actor has, like his late father, Roy, a splendidly expressive face and a gift for comedy – and, accordingly, the big stage of the National for a tragedy like this plays to all of his weaknesses.

I dread to think how the school kids taken to see this production will be able to get any kind of handle on the work. The opening scene with the three witches has been summarily dropped – it takes some arrogance to re-write Shakespeare – and there is no attempt to locate the action in either time or place. So distant is this from the original text it is not even clear, for goodness sake, if Macbeth is Scottish.

As for Lady Macbeth – one of the greatest of all roles ever created for a woman – no less an actress than Anne-Marie Duff struggles to make an impression with all of the nonsense going on around her.

If the production has a message, it has nothing to do with the destruction wrought when ambition goes unchecked, but what calamity can ensue when a director isn’t concentrating, the set designer takes matters into her own hands, and there is far too much grunge from Junge. Three and a half hours, I am afraid, of utter tedium.