McAvoy shines through a dank and dirty Macbeth

Macbeth – Trafalgar Studios, until 27 April 2013

Macbeth, by virtue of its perennial presence on the national curriculum and its pulpy plot that might just possibly hold the attention of recalcitrant teenagers who would rather be playing Call of Duty than sitting in a darkened theatre listening to verse-speaking for over two hours, is a Shakespeare play that never seems far from reach. It also has the added advantage of lead role that can be tailored to actors as apart in their careers as Kenneth Branagh and James McAvoy.

This sense of over-familiarity has harmed the play’s standing in the canon of Shakespearian tragedy, where it is rarely considered to be on the same level as Hamlet and King Lear. This distinction is hard to deny if the sole value for the tragedies is driven by the psychological complexity of its lead characters. However in Macbeth, which post-dates both plays, Shakespeare seem less interested in this then it exploring man as a primal force of nature. Where Hamlet ruminates on the moral legitMACBETH by Shakespeare,   Credit: Johan Persson - www.perssonphotography.com /imacy of his actions and the imperatives that drive him, Macbeth is driven by the emotion that eventually subsumes him – the tragedy lies precisely in this lack of reflection.

One of the joys of Macbeth for a director is that it provides an appealingly blank canvas; the landscape is sketched out as roughly as the country it is set in, and the setting is not tied to any significant fixed points in history. The result allows freedom for the director to overlay an idea onto the play without destroying the sheer enjoyment of Macbeth’s whirlwind central performance.

Jamie Lloyd’s production embraces the wild and primitive nature of the text – it is a Macbeth that lives and breathes the visceral and savage world in which it is set. There is no re-imagining Macbeth as a modern-day dictator or gangland crime boss; this is a Macbeth of history but a history that is rarely seen – when kings were a long way from assuming a divine right and living in a world of pomp and pageantry. In this Macbeth, you are king in so far as you assert a brutal right to supremacy. You are king of what you can hold and no further.

At its heart is Hobbes’ maxim that life without a settled community is a life of ‘continual fear, and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’.The set could be described as post-apocalyptic, post-climate change, post-fall of civilisation but it could easily reflect the nature of Britain prior to the establishment of a settled state. It is dank, dirty and decaying, and suits the purposes of those rule it. From the outset it is clear that these hard men living in hard times; when Duncan exclaims ‘what bloody man is that?’ [I.ii] it is not out of concern for his condition but out of wariness over his allegiance. Until Malcolm confirms that he is the Sargent he is welcomed only by the barrel of a rifle.

Similarly when Duncan reaches Glamis it seems more in keeping with a temporary base of a raging civil war; people sit on fold-up chairs and the ‘throne’, in a playful twist, is a toilet. The castle stands as a base of operations and nothing further. These men embody thec tribes forced north of the wall centuries earlier by the Romans than the contrasting civilisation of southern England. A point made by Lloyd as he bathes the set in an almost spiritual light during the play’s foray south of the border to hear Macduff and Malcolm debate the values of kingship.

This imagined world revolves around Spinoza’s belief that ‘peace is not the absence of war, but a virtue based on strength of character’. The play begins as war is concluded and the opportunity for peace to descend, yet it appears inevitable that it will only act as a temporary cessation of hostilities. It is so embedded that Macduff, who represents the forces of moral legitimacy, ultimately fails to demonstrate the virtues that can allow peace to flourish. The stark imagery of Macduff lifting Macbeth’s severed head above his own, face slowly covered by the blood of the defeated King, resembles the savagery of all that was fought against than the kingly virtues that Malcolm extols.

It is essential to understand that McAvoy’s Macbeth exists against this backdrop, as it is an explanation to the question of why Macbeth cannot turn away once he has achieved everything that was promised to him. Even before the Witches’ promise him the title of King it seems apparent that this Macbeth would not have been satisfied with his lot. Like those around him, he is a man of war and his achievements breed an emptiness rather than satisfaction.

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