Theatre Review: Macbeth by William Shakespeare (Trafalgar Studios, 2013)

So I was worried about the lack of blood on my website? Macbeth is one of the darkest, bloodiest of Shakespeare’s plays, and this production, directed by Jamie Lloyd and performed at the Trafalgar Studios in London, had lots and lots of blood!
Plus, James McAvoy as Macbeth? Wasn’t going to say no to that opportunity when a friend mentioned it on Facebook. And when she managed to get us seats at the back of the stage, virtually on the stage, for the play was going to be in the round, I was even more intrigued. So back in March, we met in London to see the play.

The controlling idea of this Macbeth was of a post-apocalyptic Scotland, a place of industrial grunge where the witches wore gas masks and their caldron was a vat of neon chemicals. Smoke regularly filled the stage, as did the violence that is imbued in the text of the play itself. Jamie Lloyd’s production never shied away from the horrors of the story. It is a world where, according to Lloyd, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s greatest sorrow that haunts them is their infertility, which drives them both as much as their shared ambition for power.

In fact, it is the slaying of Macduff’s family, often portrayed purely as a frenzy of violence, and not executed with Macbeth’s presence, that drives this home. Here, Lady Macduff hides of her son, and then is strangled in a scene of such prolonged brutality that you almost wish for a quick stabbing. Worse, just when you think that maybe, this time, Macduff’s young son is going to live, and the stage has cleared of Macbeth’s henchmen, Macbeth himself about to exit, making it right to the edge of the stage, when the hidden son cries out, and you know it is all over.

But not quite. The brilliance of this play is that McAvoy hesitates, and for a good long time, before lunging and shoving his sword through the cupboard and killing the boy. The pause, the clear indication that he’s weighing up the consequences of this final, awful act was one of the most powerful moments in the whole play. For Macbeth, it is the point of no return. He’s murdered or had people murdered, but now he’s killed a child, the one thing he and his wife cannot have. Whatever remaining softness Macbeth might have had is now gone.

Macbeth with James McAvoy

The seats we had drew us into the action; actors played both to the main audience and us as well, and made use of the aisle between out seats so that we were very much on the stage. Fake blood, and even real spittle, splashed at those of us at the back. We were at times mere feet from the actors; even though I wasn’t sitting on the aisle, I could have easily reached out and touched McAvoy’s arm (but I didn’t. I have a feeling I’d have lost that hand had I done so!)

This production featured an entirely Scottish cast. It was a choice I liked very much, for it freed the actors from the usual Received Pronunciation expected with modern Shakespeare. McAvoy especially (perhaps also because he has most of and the best lines as the lead character) relished the poetry of Shakespeare’s language, his natural accent rolling over the words with gorgeous darkness, and not holding back one jot. He was marvellous. His Macbeth’s descent from decent to nearly demonic came across so well, a sense of sanity giving way to paranoid madness.

The acting overall was excellent. I did feel that Claire Foy could have had more light and shade in her early scenes as Lady Macbeth, more conniving and cunning, but she was excellent in her own descent into insanity. I always look to whoever is playing Macduff, having seen a travelling production where the actor really stood out for playing Macduff with remarkable stoical strength. How would his grief come across, his drive for vengeance? Here, Jamie Ballard went for a near crippling grief, it acting as a passage to discover a wild ferocity, symbolised by him painting blue woad on face. The triableness of Macbeth, and indeed humanity, no what era, all brought out, perhaps a reminder of the fragility of our own society, how easily it could break into roaming factions against a background of environmental chaos. It’s Shakespeare, so of course order is restored by the end, but not without the sense of the brutal cost of such order.

For further reading, James McAvoy talks about the play in Time Out.