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Venue New Theatre Oxford     

Rufus Norris makes this both a “Scottish” play and a contemporary one, setting his interpretation of Macbeth in a kind of Afghanistan/Syria/Middle East disrupted the world of warlords, internecine tyrannies, civil wars and concrete bunkers. He emphasizes the blood and violence inherent in the story. The fine set design by Rae Smith and military costumes designed by Moritz Junge work to create a strong and consistent approach. The themes of civil unrest and the corrupting effects of unbridled ambition and tyrannical power are given powerful focus. Textually, this is Shakespeare; visually it is any current place of disruption and brutal civil war. There are many fine visual tropes to remember when you get home: the three witches, those harbingers of Fate and self-delusion, climbing poles that later become the trees moving to Dunsinane; the bridge-like ramp on which some of the action takes place; the banquet in a concrete bunker that is the “palace” of the Macbeths once they have seized the crown.

The acting is uniformly strong and convincing. I especially was struck by watching the gruff Macbeth of Michael Nardone and the insinuating Lady Macbeth of Kirsty Besterman sliding inexorably but in carefully graded steps into their various forms of madness as the story proceeds. There is a powerful tension between them throughout. The sleepwalking scene was brilliantly effective and the transition from that to Macbeth’s hearing of his queen’s death and then cradling her dead body (clearly she committed suicide) was moving and grotesque at the same time, something that could be said of much of the play. There were some marvellous moments of black humour, though the audience was, I felt, too shy and too aware of seeing a classic to let go and laugh as often as they might have. Patrick Robinson was a memorable Banquo, a superb foil for Macbeth; Joseph Brown portrayed a weak and neurotic yet crafty Malcolm; Ross Walton was a powerful, convincing and worthy Macduff. Deka Walmsley’s Porter and Lisa Zahra’s Lady Macduff also deserve special praise as part of a strong cast. Rufus Norris has given us a finely layered approach to a dark, disturbing play. This production was not to everyone’s taste when it was first done at the National Theatre in 2018, but even though I do not agree with all the details I find Norris’s approach endlessly stimulating and provocative in a good way. The pagan aspects of this tale are clear even in the way the play is set and the text, Scottish accents and all, is clearly presented.

This is definitely, for me, a much more interesting and successful look at the play than the one by the Royal Shakespeare Theatre last year with its obsessive and distracting digital clock motif. I recommend it. The audience the night that I went to was full of teenagers who are probably studying the play at school. They will have found this production a superb and helpful study aid.

  • Drama
  • By William Shakespeare
  • Director Riufus Norris
  • Composer Orlando Gough and Marc Tritschler
  • Producer Royal National Theatre
  • Cast includes: Kirsty Besterman, Michael Nardone, Patrick Robinson, Joseph Brown, Tom Mannion, Ross Walton, Deka Walmsley, Lisa Zahra
  • Venue New Theatre Oxford     

  • Until 12 January 2012 and then touring

About The Author

Reviewer (UK)

Canadian-born Mel Cooper first came to the UK to study English Literature at Oxford University and stayed. He was captivated by the culture and history of Britain, which he found to be a welcoming and tolerant country. After working in highly illustrated, non-fiction publishing for over a decade, he founded and edited the magazine Opera Now. Since then he has worked as a consultant to the Japanese broadcaster NHK, a broadcaster on British Satellite Broadcasting, a maker of audio shows and arts critic for several airlines, and as one of the team that started Britain’s first commercial classical music radio station, Classic FM, on which he was both a classical music DJ and creator and presenter of shows like Classic America and Authentic Performance. Throughout this period, he also lectured in music and literature in London and Oxford and published short stories in Canada. After working with the Genesis Foundation on helping to fund arts projects, he continues to write, review and lecture on music and literature. His first novel has just been published as an e-book. The title is City of Dreams. It is the first volume of a projected saga called The Dream Bearers. You can find the Kindle version of the book on Amazon.

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