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Review: Brutal, cold, dystopian Macbeth, National Theatre and a Children of Men comparison

You don't walk away feeling any sense of tragedy merely that you've watched a bunch of unsavoury characters killing each other.

The first time we see Macbeth (Rory Kinnear) in Rufus Norris' production at the National Theatre, he is committing a brutal act of violence on an enemy. It sets the play down a path that doesn't necessarily lead to satisfactory conclusions.

Macbeth-mobileherospot_2160x2160-sfw-5The setting is some point in the future when society seems to have broken down.

It's a landscape of generators, machetes, chest armour held together with parcel tape and clothes and buildings patched-up using whatever is available - mainly polythene it seems.

Only King Duncan (Stephen Boxer) wears a smart, intact, red, tailored suit.

Stylistically it reminded me of parts of Alfonso Cuarón's film Children of Men (which I love), thematically there are similarities too.

The film is about an infertility crisis which leads to societal breakdown and of course Lady Macbeth (Anne-Marie Duff) and her husband are childless.

It could be argued that they seek out self-fulfilment in a desperate and increasingly brutal pursuit of power.

I liked the dark tone of the setting, even the Back to the Future, Doc Brown-esque porter played by Trevor Fox.

And I really liked the witches who were all different in their movements and energy levels and seem to haunt the dark corners of the stage. 

But the characters are nearly as unrelentingly cold and brutal as the landscape they live in and it is easy not to care.

There is no charisma to Rory Kinnear's Macbeth and how can you sympathise with a man - and the woman who spurs him on - who is capable of such horrific acts from the outset?

In this video interview, Rufus Norris describes them as in one sense 'Shakespeare's most happily married couple' but this is no love story or crime of passion.

There was nothing about the way they were around each other that struck me as an extraordinarily loving or solid relationship.

Rufus Norris also says there is light in the darkness but that I couldn't see, instead it felt unremittingly bleak.

Perhaps the scale of the staging with its bridge feature sweeping onto the stage overshadows the intimacy and relationships because there is little warmth or connection between the characters. 

It renders the play a series of individual scenes and performances. Perhaps they are numb from all the fighting?

What you end up with is a lot of killing and I too perhaps grew numb to it. You don't walk away feeling any sense of tragedy merely that you've watched a bunch of unsavoury characters killing each other.

It's two and half hours including an interval and I'm giving it a disappointing 3 stars. You can see it at the National Theatre until June 23 it then goes on tour in September, cast to be announced.

Macbeth related posts and articles:

Review of RSC/Jonathan Slinger production in 2011 and the children witches.

Claire Foy talking about play Lady Macbeth opposite James McAvoy at Trafalgar Studios

Rev Stan first thoughts on James McAvoy's Macbeth

Rev Stan second thoughts on James McAvoy's Macbeth

Interview with Rory Kinnear on playing Macbeth from The Independent.