The National Theatre has just netted a stupendous 22 Olivier nominations, a massive haul that should by rights halt the persistent low-level mutterings about Rufus Norris’s leadership. And yet, despite glorious exceptions like ‘Follies’ – responsible for ten of those nominations – it’s hard to deny that Norris has consistently made a real meal out of the NT’s biggest house, the Olivier, which has become increasingly synonymous with ambitious flops like ‘Salome’ and ‘Common’.
And where his predecessor Nicholas Hytner always had his brilliant, rigorous Olivier-set Shakespeare productions to fall back on, the Bard isn’t so much Norris’s bag, something made abundantly clear by his garbled take on ‘Macbeth’.
We are in a sort of vaguely post-apocalyptic Scotland (not that there’s anything particularly Scottish about it). It looks quite cool in a ‘Mad Max’ sort of way. But after years of smart, revelatory excavations of Shakespeare’s works by Hytner (plus decent recent stabs from Polly Findlay and Simon Godwin), it feels like a big problem that the setup here is essentially meaningless – signifying nothing.
Visual panache is Norris’s strong suit, and he might have literally styled this all out. But the spectacle only goes so far – it feels reminiscent of his ‘Everyman’, but more dour, with the only real set-piece of note the scene in which Rory Kinnear’s murderously ambitious nobleman Macbeth returning to confront prophetic witches the Weird Sisters, only to be confronted by a freaky army of doll-like spirits.
Most fatally, talented leads Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff just seem to be in the wrong show. Kinnear in particular is a brilliant Shakespearean whose Hamlet and Iago burned up this stage. But he’s a naturalistic actor. Here he seems to interpret the murderous Scottish lord as a dithering bureaucrat who develops a Stalin-like paranoia after Duff’s Lady Macbeth persuades him to off King Duncan and claim the Scottish throne. Which is a really interesting interpretation, but difficult to square with the fact that we’re also presumably supposed to see him as some sort of blood-soaked dystopian warlord. Likewise Duff’s Lady M starts the show warm and supportive, with her later derangement less to do with personal guilt, more horror at her husband’s spiralling paranoia. Again, a fine idea for a different production – perhaps one, say, set in an office – but it seems positively bizarre when everyone’s dressed up like something out of ‘The Warriors’.
Toss in some baffling cuts to the text that don’t seem to serve much purpose beyond wrestling the running time down a bit and you’re stuck with a big, blasted mess of a show. Of course, we’re still talking about the National Theatre, and there’s a basic level of competence that’s always going to be achieved by a good cast tackling a great play on a reasonable budget. It’s not even the worst show to play at the Olivier in the last year (hello, ‘Salome’). But it is, almost certainly, the worst Shakespeare production at the NT for at least a decade. Roll on that return for ‘Follies’, eh?