Macbeth

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 30 October

It’s the shortest of Shakespeare’s tragedies and, on the surface, perhaps the most straightforward. A successful, loyal general is seduced by prophecies and egged on by an ambitious wife. He kills his king, takes the throne, disposes of those who might threaten him – and then unravels into death.

Macbeth was written at a dark time, as the newly-crowned James I eased himself onto Elizabeth’s throne and the Gunpowder Plot proved just one of the challenges to the crown. Rufus Norris’ production for the National Theatre presents us with a world where small countries’ conflicts can spillage dangerously.

Designer Rae Smit depicts this as a dark grey causeway with its paving flaking. Poles, suggesting those gallows-trees familiar from Callot engravings, support flutters of crow-torn rags. The witches (Elizabeth Chan, Evelyn Roberts and Olivia Sweeney) writhe up these as they contemplate the evil past and to come.

Sparse rooms suggest castles and dug-outs where comfort takes second place to security. Paul Pyant’s lighting adds to the sense of embattled menace. Only briefly, in the scene with Lady Macduff (Lisa Zahra), her son and her cousin Ross (Rachel Sanders) does a suggestion of normal domesticity appears briefly.

Kirsty Besterman’s Lady Macbeth is the dominant performance, radiating a dangerous level of tightly repressed frustration on many levels. Michael Nardone as Macbeth almost matches her, but not quite manages it. There’s an excellent Banquo by Patrick Robinson, suggesting the inner ease which Macbeth has probably never experienced.

The sleep-walking scene, with Reuben Johnson’s doctor and Sweeney’s gentlewoman petrified by what they see and hear is magnificently played. Tom Mannion’s Duncan, swathed by costume designer Moritz Junge in eye-blasting scarlet (Macbeth’s assumption of the regal colour appears far more tentative) is impressive.

Shakespeare wrote for a time and a place. His universal appeal over four centuries later shows that this transforms into many cultures, languages and eras. Ambition, and the illnesses which attend it, have no boundary of place or time. We watch in horror – but also with recognition. A play for all seasons.

Four and a half-star rating.

Macbeth runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 3 November with matinées on 1 and 3 November.

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