A touring production by the National Theatre of one of Shakespeare’s most well-known plays has opened at the Lyceum in Sheffield, writes Alan Payne.
It’s very much a northern drama – the accents are Scottish, but also Geordie and Yorkshire, emphasizing the border qualities embedded in the text itself.
It starts with the witches – representatives of the border between earth and air, this world and the next.
They are strangely convincing, unsettling, eerie, as if belonging to the world of film rather than theatre.
Their presence penetrates every scene, even when they are not present on stage. The set is dominated by a wooden ramp – indicative of the upward movement of ambition and the downward momentum of despair and death.
The ramp and a variety of ramshackle walls and rooms are constantly being moved about – suggestive of an unstable society where everything is on the edge.
The atmosphere is enhanced by both lighting and music.
All seems both ancient and modern – as do the pair at the centre of the drama, Macbeth and his wife, divided within themselves as well as creating divisions around them.
The title role is played with hypnotic ease by Michael Nardone – especially memorable when his voice drops to little more than a murmur.
Kirsty Besterman is equally compelling as Lady Macbeth, driven by a steely ambition which eventually collapses under the weight of the horrors she has helped to unleash.
Both actors deliver lines which have become part of our common language as if they are being spoken for the first time.
Among the others, Patrick Robinson is an upright, principled but still human Banquo, a bit of casting which enriches the complexity of Shakespeare’s language – his black skin countering all the usual associations of darkness and night. Tom Mannion is a charismatic Duncan. Deka Walmsley turns the porter’s role on its head – often played as comic relief, here he becomes one of the play’s most sinister characters.
The gender divide is less uneven than in many productions (Ross, for example, is played by a woman, Rachel Sanders; and one of the murderers is a woman); but it still comes across as a play about masculinity.
If there’s one disappointment it’s that Fleance and Lady Macduff’s son are not played by children – one of the difficulties, maybe, of a touring production.
But there are many powerfully executed scenes, not least when Banquo’s ghost appears at a meal given by the Macbeths for their guests.
In an article in the programme, Marina Warner comments on both the history behind ‘the three weird sisters’ and the contemporary relevance of the play. It’s an illuminating piece.
Macbeth, directed by Rufus Norris, is on until Saturday November 24.