Going in to see Rufus Norris' new production of MACBETH at the Olivier Theatre it struck me that, having seen the play four times previously on stage, I had yet to see one that I found fully satisfactorily. I still haven't...
During the opening I found myself thinking of RuPaul's command before the final lip-sync competition on RUPAUL'S DRAG RACE "DON'T fuck it up"... It was a waste of time, because the fucking up appeared to have occured some time before I arrived. Once again - and it is happening with increasing regularity - I sat there thinking 'why couldn't anyone have spoken up during either the rehearsals or tech run and said "Is it me or is this shite not working"?
As with Nicholas Hytner's JULIUS CAESAR playing further down the Thames at The Bridge, any onstage cutting and stabbing has been matched offstage by the filleting of sections of Shakespeare's text. Why this is done so often now is beyond me - a misguided attempt to just focus on the main characters? An attempt to streamline the action to fit it into a certain concept or running time? Both productions were attended by several school groups - what does the teacher say to the pupils when they study the text next: "You can skip the next page, Nicholas Hytner says it's surplus to requirements", or "Eye of newt, and toe of frog? Don't bother with that, Rufus Norris says it's expendable."
Rufus Norris certainly has a concept... and boy, is it driven home with relentless monotony. Designer Rae Smith has conjured up a relentlessly ugly vision of a dystopian wasteland, a mostly bare stage is dominated by a large sloped walkway that wanders around the stage like rogue airport boarding stairs which also features a few tall blasted thin trees with ugly plastic fronds atop them. The bin bag ethic is also featured in large oily-looking drapes that cover most of the stage at times - actually I quite liked them with their suggestion of all-encompassing demonic wings - and this look reaches it's apogee in the bizarre idea that Macbeth's castle has rooms that look like concrete pillboxes with black bin bags piled up in corners. Go figure...
Costume designer Mauritz Junge has expended no imagination at all: the costumes are drab, ill-fitting fatigues or dirty jeans, vests and clumpy boots usually covered up by shapeless woolly coats. King Duncan wears a particularly ugly red suit - which of course Macbeth turns up in after Duncan's death - and don't get me started on Lady Macbeth who is obviously allowed a bit of glamour when she becomes Queen and is fitted out with what looks like a handmade red sequined frock of shiteous quality. It all suggests that Norris lent the creative team a dvd of MAD MAX and said "Something like this maybe...?"
Nothing lifts the murk of James Farncombe's lighting apart from the cold moonlight shafts that illuminate the grimy business or Orlando Gough's clanging music - never more ghastly than in a seriously misjudged 'party' scene where presumably well-brought-up Equity card-holding actors do a mentalist pogo-ing conga round the set, strenuously giving off "WE'RE OFF THE CHAIN, US".
One wonders how the performers will play the remaining shows? Will they stick to Norris' depressing concept or will they actually try and give performances of character? The much-vaunted casting of Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff fails to generate any heat: it's almost like neither of them wants to pull focus from the other. In HAMLET, Rory Kinnear displayed a remarkable facility for making the most well-known speeches sound fresh but he is developing a worrying vocal shtick - which was actually effective in Norris' THE THREEPENNY OPERA - of falling into a distressingly fake Mockney accent which he drowns in here, hitting consonants with an exaggerated wallop such as "Is THis a DAgger I SEe BEfore Me" till you want to scream at the stage JUST SPEAK IN YOUR ORDINARY VOICE! All the more annoying as he calms down for the 'murder of Duncan' sequence and the "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" speech.
Anne-Marie Duff also disappointed in a performance that hardly made it to where we were sitting at the back of the stalls. She started promisingly but her performance grew so colourless that I wanted to ask why she didn't assert herself and more importantly her character in the rehearsal room - there are certain Shakespeare female characters that you suspect the Bard simply threw out some scenes because they were too difficult for the boy actors who played them; a good actress will be able to 'fill in' the gaps of Gertrude or Lady Macbeth but Duff sadly lives up to her surname.
She can't even make Lady Macbeth's haunting mad scene anything other than just another drab scene - I could not help but think of when Maggie Smith asked Coral Brown for advice on playing the role as Coral had made a success of it in New York in the 1950s - her advice? "It's a fucker darling, and remember to keep your eyes open during the sleepwalking scene, for some reason it rivets the fuckers!" Oh Coral, that you should be alive at this hour.
Other performances fitfully come to life: the always hair-trigger Patrick O'Kane gave us an over-the-top Macduff but was momentarily effecting at his horror at the death of his family, Trevor Fox was a relentlessly Geordie Porter - oh no, Rufus Norris, you couldn't cut the Porter's speech could you? - and Kevin Hardy was an interesting Banquo (despite the scouse accent) until he was called upon to lurch around the stage as Banquo's ghost like a SHAUN OF THE DEAD blob-job performer.
Amaka Okafor was a dignified Lady Macduff and I liked the little that Nicholas Karimi did as Lennox but the three actresses playing the witches were saddled with modern-day "torture porn" horror film persona's and the two actors playing the assassins deserve to be shot for their over-the-top ONLY WAY IS ESSEX chav acting.
To say I was disappointed by this is to put it mildly and it does nothing to stop the creeping suspicion that after the dog shows of SALOMÉ, SAINT GEORGE AND THE DRAGON, COMMON and his own WONDER.LAND, Rufus Norris is clueless about how to use the Olivier stage to it's best advantage.
This is Rufus Norris' first Shakespeare production in 25 years. It shows.