London Student

Macbeth at the National Theatre

In the face of negative reviews from other publications regarding the National Theatre’s Macbeth Carleigh Nicholls considers the play in a more detailed light, pushing against its choice of a dystopian world as setting and praising Anne-Marie Duff’s vulnerable Lady Macbeth.

Glancing at the National Theatre’s promotional posters of their adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, one would be uncertain what type of play they were advertising without the title front and centre. The poster features a black and white close-up of the titular stars, Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff, in an anguished embrace. Indeed, this uncertainty is prevalent throughout the whole production. It is never clear what type of play this Macbeth is supposed to be.

Directed by Rufus Norris, the play is set in an ageless and post-apocalyptic land. Central to the stage is a large ramp—perhaps cleverly evoking the Scottish hills and craigs of the original setting—where many of the action scenes take place. Set designer, Rae Smith, has also placed large poles on the ramp, perhaps suggesting heads on spikes. The ramp moves way to allow small, concrete houses and buildings to come forward for the more intimate scenes, evoking yet again this land’s desperate state. The sparse set clearly shows a war-torn and barren wasteland. However, when the characters reference the kingdom of Scotland, it is jarring, and takes one out of the experience. Why exactly would these characters want to control what essentially looks like a junkyard? By taking the play out of its setting, it loses some of the spookiness and magic that is so engrained in the text. Yes, this play is still incredibly dark, highlighted by the eerie music and chanting that plays in the background during key scenes. However, darkness does not always equate to mystery, which essential to Macbeth.

Rory Kinnear, Patrick O’Kane and Stephen Boxer in Macbeth with Rae Smith’s set. Photo: Brinkhoff Mögenburg

Interestingly, the costumes are similar to teenage dystopian movies, with militaristic cargo pants and tank tops prevalent throughout the duration of the play. Indeed, Stephen Boxer’s Duncan is almost reminiscent of President Snow in The Hunger Games, with his red suit, shoes, and scarf. Perhaps the costume choice is an insinuation that not all is well with Duncan. Indeed, prior to his murder, Duncan is seen gyrating toward Lady Macbeth during the celebratory rave that takes place at the Macbeths’ home, perhaps hinting at his unsavoury character.

Although generally well-acted, Kinnear’s Macbeth is unfortunately a weak spot, likely due to the uncertain direction of the play. When analysing Macbeth, the big question is whether or not the character is just a victim in the witches’ games, or do the witches simply bring out the ambition that was already simmering inside him? This adaptation does hint at the witches’ influence but does not answer the question. Prior to murdering Duncan, one of the witches looms in the background atop the ramp. Additionally, during the final battle between Macbeth and Macduff, the three witches straddle the set’s poles and watch from above. The three witches (Hannah Hutch, Anna-Maria Nabirye and Beatrice Scirocchi) do indeed provide a spooky performance as haunting chants echo their lines. Welcomingly, each witch has her own personality. While Nabirye walks stoically down the ramp, Hutch flitters throughout the stage. But many of the witches’ original lines, including their song and dance, have unfortunately been cut. It would have been nice to have the chance to see more from these voodoo‑esque young witches. However, the role of the witches has been so drastically diminished that it is unclear whether they are just observing or if they are indeed influencing. Kinnear’s portrayal does not try to answer this question. Indeed, his Macbeth seems weak and somewhat unlikeable—perhaps to show how easily influenced he can be by the witches and his wife. However, it is hard to imagine that this Macbeth was a powerful military leader prior to these events. As he kills more and more, it is unclear whether it is madness or ambition that is driving him.

Duff’s Lady Macbeth is a standout in this rather dreary adaptation. She brings a subtlety and vulnerability that can often be missing in the role. As she summons the demons in her “unsex me” speech, she seems almost trapped by the small set—a tiny, junk filled room. This provides the audience with a visual motive, and perhaps a reason she would want to jump up the social hierarchy so speedily, even if the kingdom is rubbish. Her speech is not diabolical; instead Duff’s Lady Macbeth appears frightened: she needs these spirits to give her the courage to do what needs to be done and she does not revel in her evil deeds. Indeed, Duff’s use of body language is quite remarkable: at the beginning of the play, she and Macbeth are close. She sits on his lap, drapes her leg around his, and they caress and hold each other. However, when Macbeth becomes King, Lady Macbeth’s increasing isolation is shown physically: she tries to touch her husband and is pushed away. You can feel the physical and emotional distance between them. Duff’s facial expressions in these scenes are impressive. It is only when Macbeth finds out his wife has killed herself that he once again holds her. However, this time it is her lifeless corpse.

Anne-Marie Duff as Lady Macbeth in Macbeth. Photo: Brinkhoff Mögenburg

The rest of the ensemble generally does a fine job. Kevin Harvey’s Banquo in particular stands out in bringing a poetic delivery to his lines and a genuine likeability to the stage. Patrick O’Kane tackles the challenging role of Macduff, and unfortunately, he has a few missteps. While he does portray Macduff’s grief and numbness following the news of his family’s slaughter, O’Kane has a tendency to shout his lines. It would be wise to remember that anger can also be portrayed quietly, and perhaps more frighteningly. Trevor Fox brings a seriousness to the role of the Porter, who is often just utilised just for comic relief. However, the costume choice is questionable. He wears a drab, grey coat covering, what appears to be reminiscent of a grey Scottish kilt—this feels somewhat classist in a production that has not emphasised its Scottish setting. Conversely, Stephen Boxer brings an air of levity to his Duncan, which is an interesting choice.

This adaptation of Macbeth has glimpses of genius and inspiration, and as a post‑apocalyptic, dystopian play, it is indeed enjoyable. But as Macbeth? Foul is not always fair.


Macbeth is running at the National Theatre until 23rd June 2018 and is being screened to cinemas on the 10th May. From September 2018 the production will tour around the UK.

Carleigh Nicholls

Carleigh Nicholls is a PhD Candidate in History at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, but is currently based in London. She is a great appreciator of theatre, particularly plays with a historical nature, but enjoys all genres. Her general research interests include politics, religion, and the law in Stuart Britain, with a particular focus on Restoration Scotland.