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 - /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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Emotions laid bare in stripped back production

Mydidae – Trafalgar Studios, booking until 30 March 2013

Arriving at the Trafalgar Studios you may unwittingly feel that you have walked into the wrong venue given the amount of signage for what appears to be a rather bombastic Macbeth with a certain Mr McAvoy seeming to dominate events.

Take closer order and you will discover that their intimate studio space is currently playing host to a drama that packs an equally shocking emotional punch. However it is one that sets aside the grandiose Shakespearian Keir Charles and Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Mydidae, Soho Theatre, 5 December 2012 (courtesy of Simon Annand) 16tragedy and instead hits you unaware from its home within a destabilising, and ultimately disturbing, modern naturalism.

Jack Thorne is a very promising writer, whose previous credits have included co-writing Greenland for the National and adapting The Physicists at the Donmar. In Mydidae, Thorne demonstrates the knack of not just writing well-crafted naturalistic dialogue but also developing concepts where a surface simplicity artfully hides unexpectedly complex depths.

Setting a play in a bathroom is such an obviously winning idea that it begs the question why it hasn’t been explored to this level of precision before. Playwrights are constantly searching for new ways to shine a light onto the way people relate to each other and the bathroom as a location is one that throws up intriguing questions about the public/private nature of the space and the contested and malleable boundaries that are placed upon it.

Throughout the play this question of boundaries keeps reoccurring. We see the boundaries of David’s job constantly shift into the private. The boundaries of their relationship are seen to constantly dissolve and reform. The balance of power is a contested space between them and even the audience is challenged on the assumptions it makes.

It is telling that one of the opening images of the play is the invasion of Marion’s private world by David’s very public phone conversation. In the technologically connected modern world the public persona blurs the boundaries of what was traditionally accepted to be the private.

A person can no longer easily control their own private space outside of what exists internally. However Thorne shows how this world of connectedness does not necessarily lead to more openness. Whilst Marion and David believe they have shared everything, they have in fact used sharing as a mechanism for locking away what most needs communicating.

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Sexual politics and swinging London

When Did You Last See My Mother – Trafalgar Studios, until 08 October. 

Written when he was 18 and produced for the Comedy Theatre two years later, When Did You Last See My Mother, marked Christopher Hampton’s explosive debut and meant that he was the youngest playwright of modern times to have a play staged in the West End. It opened to almost universally rapturous reviews and immediately propelled Hampton into the spotlight as a precocious new talent. After a career that includes The Philanthropist, Tales from Hollywood and the Oscar-winning screenplay for Dangerous Liaisons, When Did You Last See My Mother seems like it is from the distant past and almost unbelievably this new production at the Trafalgar Studios marks the first major revival of the play in the West End for almost 40 years.

Currently the West End appears to be in a period of looking to the past; we have seen a number of Rattigan revivals in his centenary year, The Kitchen has just opened at the National and the Donmar will soon be staging Osborne’s Inadmissible Evidence. A reason behind these revivals is the belief that these three playwrights share an ability to create a universality of truth that can transcend the time when it was written; Rattigan finds his range across the spectrum of human emotion whilst Wesker’s masterpiece, The Kitchen, lays bare the individual within the machine.

To expect that a play written by an 18 year old will reach such a level of truth is unreasonable and there are moments when it is clear that Hampton is still finding his ear for dialogue; in particular Jimmy’s mother must deliver a couple of lines that suggest a playwright still finding his feet in giving voice to a mature women; interestingly a theme mirrored within the play. However this production is full of moments that touch on the sublime and show us glimpses of a master honing his art. More crucially, Hampton is very strong on the undercurrents of sexual identity and class envy that run through the play and still feel immediate and challenging to a modern audience. Review Continues Here