In the last couple of years, London has seen a schizophrenic Hamlet from Michael Sheen and Mark Rylance’s seemingly autistic Richard III. Now the latest ’sleb to locate the madness in a great Shakespearean hero is James McAvoy, whose warrior king Macbeth is steeped in paranoid delusion.
Jamie Lloyd’s stark, muscular production is set in a grim post-apocalyptic Scotland where men and women dress in rags, meals consist of brown slop and home-brewed wine, and King Duncan’s normally sincere comment on the ‘sweet air’ of Macbeth’s castle is delivered as an ironic punchline at the expense of a dilapidated ruin.
When the superb McAvoy’s compact, bristly Macbeth first charges on stage, machete in one hand, axe in the other, body slathered in blood and eyes full of rage, he has the damaged glare of a man who has been fighting all his life, with precious little pleasure even in the gaps between killing.
Life here is hell, and the wickedness in Macbeth’s murder of Duncan feels mitigated by this world’s dog-eat-dog brutality. Indeed, Claire Foy’s excellent Lady Macbeth has an almost saintly charisma as she calmly, rationally gees her husband up for murder; there is the feeling that it’s only the growling, stuttering Macbeth’s increasing paranoia holding him back from the killing in the first place.
But it’s his paranoia that drives him on to truly evil deeds, as he murders his friend Banquo and the family of Macduff (an impressive, moving Jamie Ballad) in response to visions he believes have been shown to him by a trio of gas-mask-clad witches. By the end, he’s so broken down that he barely reacts to his wife’s death, while his climactic battle with Macduff feels like a horribly pyrrhic victory, with no end to the brutal society that birthed Macbeth in sight.
The once sterile Trafalgar has been smartly reconfigured here, with seating on both sides of the room stretching right down to Soutra Gilmour’s stark, ‘Saw’-like set, where supernatural entities erupt from the floor and welters of blood burst from rusty pipes.
With a trim running length, film star McAvoy in the lead and a grungy horror film aesthetic, this is a populist ‘Macbeth’ intended to lure in a younger crowd. Older connoisseurs of the Scottish Play may wish for a bit more nuance, or groan at some of the the weaker Scottish accents. But populist doesn’t mean compromised, and this is powerful stuff, an almighty wallop to the guts of a production. Andrzej Lukowski