Is that a ginger beard I see before me? Macbeth-Trafalgar Studios
*Spoilers for the production itself. I don’t think there can really be spoilers for a play that is over 400 years old*
If I were to choose two words to sum up Jamie Lloyd’s latest production of Macbeth they would be noisy and messy. By no means does messy refer to the acting or staging, both of which are sharp and wonderful, but the actual sloppy mess that had to be mopped up by a stage hand at the end of the first half. Liquids, especially blood, are chucked around liberally in this play. If you’re not a fan of gore or jumping out of your skin, this production might not be for you. Despite the mess and the shouting, the production is highly enjoyable with some memorable performances and clever use of staging.
The big money name for this production is James McAvoy who does an excellent job throughout. His is a very visceral performance and one in which he seems to be working extremely hard. His Macbeth is a young, slightly laddish soldier who strides around the stage with an axe in one hand and an enormous machete in the other. He is not someone that you would want to mess with. Macbeth’s descent into madness is beautifully portrayed by McAvoy, particularly in the second half as his lines become more sing-song, punctuated with cackling laughter and he develops a penchant for rocking on chairs. One of McAvoy’s shining moments (albeit one of the more disgusting ones) was the scene in which he pays a visit to the witches for the second time, this time a paranoid and broken man. The traditional method of delivering the prophecies (armed head, bloody child, crowned child) are done away with and Macbeth now has to drink from a disgusting looking green potion, dispensed from a jerry can. McAvoy spends quite a lot of this scene with his fingers down his throat and retching, something which must have surely taken a toll on his voice. I applaud him for delivering such an uncomfortable looking scene with such panache and character.
The supporting cast equally matched McAvoy in their excellence with a particularly strong performance from Jamie Ballard as Macbeth’s undoer Macduff. His most powerful scene is the terrible moment in which the news is delivered that Macbeth has stormed his castle and murdered his wife and children and he is forced to comprehend such an unthinkably awful act. Ballard moves from shock, to weeping and lamenting, with a small but stunningly heartbreaking gesture with his hand to the small height of his slaughtered children, accompanying the line ‘All my pretty ones?’ As an audience we watch a man’s heart break in front of our very eyes and with it our hearts break too. The contrast between this touching scene and the resolve with which Macduff pursues Macbeth at the very end of the play is astounding, as Ballard becomes a frenzied warrior, eventually revelling in the death of the king by presenting a grotesque, horribly life like head of Macbeth, smeared in blood. (The head itself provoked a huge audience reaction. We all audibly gasped, primarily because it was the spitting image of James McAvoy. I congratulate whoever made that head, it was just the right amount of disgusting.) Perhaps the only weak link in this well-oiled machine is Claire Foy as Lady Macbeth. Whilst Foy doesn’t give a bad performance, I felt she not only struggled with the accent (the production, to its credit, insisted on an entirely Scottish-accented cast, which I thought was extraordinarily effective) but began at a level of insanity that left no real room to express the truth madness of Lady Macbeth as she is consumed by guilt as she reflects on the terrible deeds she has influenced.
Visually, this play is remarkable. Set in a weird, post-apocolyptic Scotland, the set is a claustrophobic, rusty metal creation with oppresive, almost prison like lamps hanging from the ceiling and a perhaps slightly over zealous use of strobe lighting to indicate scene change. The claustrophobia is heightened by the fact that the theatre space is incredibly small with the front rows of each side actually sitting on stage, very much part of the action. (I’m not going to lie, this did make for some extra entertainment. Audience members in the row opposite got to experience people dying on their feet, being shouted at by cast members and having huge swords flung so vigorously that they got wedged under chairs. Unintentional humour was abounds there.) The props are minimal, a few harsh metal chairs, a toilet into which McAvoy is rather unpleasantly sick and two wooden tables which plays many different roles. One of the most incredible scenes, memorable for its visceral bloodiness, is the appearance of Banquo’s ghost, bursting from a trapdoor in the floor and confronting the terrified Macbeth in a face off atop the dinner table, set with food and places. Never speaking, he is a horrible, rasping creature with the blood audibly rattling in his throat, a very distressing image that doesn’t leave you once you have left the theatre. This nightmarish vision was made worse by a shower of blood pouring down from the ceiling with McAvoy slipping and sliding about on the table, a terrible reminder to Macbeth of the awful deed he had enacted upon his friend and really marking the beginning of his demise. (One of the advantages of the front row being so well lit and visible was that we could see everyone wiping themselves down from the unexpected blood splatter)
On the whole, this is a production of remarkable strength. There is never a moment, or at least not for me, when there isn’t a terrible sense of foreboding and evil. It delivers shock, it delivers mess and it makes for one of the most visually memorable performances I have seen in a very long time. This production really did drive home just how thrilling and terrifying live theatre can be and just how rewarding it is for an audience. It will not be an experience I will be forgetting in a hurry.
Macbeth is at the Trafalgar Studios and runs until the 27th April