I dare do all that may become a man; who dares do more is none.
Jamie Lloyd’s Macbeth is set in a dystopian, independent Scotland of the future; riven by war, economically and environmentally ravaged, on its knees. The Trafalgar Studio has been given a skilful makeover by Soutra Gilmour, who stages the play in the round by placing some seventy seats at the rear of the stage. Gilmour’s set is bleak and grey, studded with metal chairs, ladders and grilles and with only dim lights flickering overhead. While Gilmour’s design is powerful, it is not demonstrably Scottish, yet this is remedied by Lloyd’s decision to cast a number of Scottish actors and to require his English cast members to assume Scottish accents. I have seen Macbeth a number of times, but always with English actors; there was something particularly powerful and transporting, and arguably authentic, to hear the verse spoken in Scots. The only oddity was Hugh Ross as a rather lacklustre Duncan, who stuck out for failing to adopt the accent.
Anna Josephs’ costume design complements Lloyd and Gilmour’s dark, dystopian vision: the three witches sport gas masks and the men wear battle-dress (in various shades of grey or brown), woollen hats and heavy-duty boots. In a notably clever example of costume design, Malcolm is the only character not in khaki or fatigues – instead he wears a blue puffa jacket, corduroys that don’t reach his ankles and a pair of converse.
This is the first production I’ve seen of Macbeth in which a relatively young actor takes on the titular role. McAvoy makes for an extraordinarily physical Macbeth, virile and full of untapped resources; he enters wielding both a machete and an axe, immediately encapsulated as a man of deadly power. McAvoy gives us an interesting, if inconsistent, Macbeth; he is sometimes wildly brilliant as his crazed laughter punctuates the verse and his eyes gleam maniacally, and yet he is unable to sustain the tragedy of Macbeth’s descent from favoured subject to savage murderer. McAvoy is particularly good when hesitation is required – his interpretation of choking on ‘Amen’ after slaying Duncan is inspired; his pause before the words ‘Not yet’ when asked if the King has risen speaks volumes; and he is a revelation during the murder of Lady Macduff. Jamie Lloyd has slightly altered this scene so that the mother is savagely strangled while Macbeth looks on, in quiet, passive brutality, and her son hides inside a cabinet. When the boy inadvertently cries out as Macbeth is leaving the room, McAvoy pauses on the threshold for a long while, before re-entering the room and running the boy through with his machete. In this moment McAvoy does manage to attain that sense of Macbeth as grappling with his conscience, weighing up the cost of surrendering his soul in pursuit of earthly power. It’s a shame he fails to maintain that internal struggle throughout.
Claire Foy is believable as a young, ambitious, clever Lady Macbeth, imprisoned by her gender and yet desperate for more. When Foy speaks of her willingness to murder her own child if she had so promised, her demonic intent is clear and powerfully chilling; in the banquet scene where Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost, Foy movingly displays Lady Macbeth’s despair and fear and her sense that everything is spiralling out of control. However, negotiating the relationship between Macbeth and his wife is never easy; while McAvoy and Foy give strong performances individually, together they fail to make sense of this conflicted, murderous couple – they do not convincingly portray either their passion or a notion of true complicity in their dark deeds.
The supporting cast is mostly strong (especially Allison McKenzie as Lady Macduff and Olivia Morgan as the Porter), but Mark Quartley makes for an overly insipid Malcom. Jamie Lloyd’s production runs to a full three hours, and yet the only moment where its length is felt is the scene between Malcolm and Macduff. Here the pace quite dramatically declines; it’s a shame as, for the most part, Lloyd has imbued the play with such a sense of action and urgency that you’re barely aware of its length. Jamie Ballard is a revelation, however, managing to haul back that long scene with the strength of his performance. Though his Macduff appears rather dull and mundane at the start, he swells throughout the play as Macduff grows in importance. Ballard is absolutely devastating when he learns of the deaths of his wife and children, and I’m sure there were few dry eyes in the audience.
Lloyd’s is a dramatic and powerful, if excessively violent, production. The majority of the cast is permanently covered in gore, as blood drips from the ceiling, runs in rivers over the floor, and pools at their feet. Indeed, there is so much of the stuff that, just before the play began, the Stage Manager was required to warn those of us sitting in the ‘stage seats’ that we risked being spattered ourselves at certain points! Rather than be spattered with fake blood, the only disadvantage I found in those seats was that I missed some of the verse as the actors often had their backs to us.
This is a good production of Macbeth, elevated by some exceptional performances and some thought-provoking interpretations of Shakespeare’s verse. It fails to be great because Lloyd’s dystopian setting doesn’t permit the maintenance of the requisite sense of tragedy, and despite McAvoy’s best efforts, we are left with a Macbeth who is a crazed butcher, about whose miserable end it is very hard to care.