Jamie Lloyd productions of Macbeth, starring James McAvoy, packs a powerful punch says Charles Spencer.
4 out of 5 stars
The main house of Trafalgar Studios has been reconfigured for a season of plays directed by the fast-rising director Jamie Lloyd which will examine power and politics – appropriately enough for a theatre located in Whitehall.
The stage has been raised by more than two metres, and extended out into the auditorium, bringing spectators closer to the action, and there are 70 additional seats on the stage itself. It all makes for a powerful theatrical impact in this most scary and claustrophobic of Shakespeare’s tragedies.
Macbeth often reads better than it plays. Shakespeare’s thrilling poetry of violence, darkness and fear can seem more potent in the mind’s eye than when it is visibly enacted on stage.
But there is no doubt that Lloyd’s production, set in a post-apocalyptic Scotland which has been laid waste by war and climate change, packs a powerful punch. The cast are dressed in bedraggled clothes that look like rejects from the Oxfam shop, while the Macbeths’ castle, with an on stage lavatory into which Macbeth pukes violently before killing Duncan, is more squalid that a student flat during the Edinburgh Fringe.
My chief grouse is that, with a running time of three hours, the production sometimes misses the hurtling momentum of Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy.
There is no doubt however that it creates a powerful atmosphere of evil, and there are many moments that conjure a palpable thrill of terror, not least the appearances of the witches, nightmarish creatures in sinister rubber gasmasks.
James McAvoy, best known as a film actor, proves a commanding Macbeth, and the relationship with his wife is powerfully caught. The text makes it clear that the couple had a child who died in infancy and McAvoy and Claire Foy as Lady Macbeth suggest both an undertow of grief and the sense that their murderous ambition is some kind of sick compensation for their loss.
At the start it is Foy’s Lady Macbeth who leads the way, like a bossy schoolgirl who has set her heart on becoming head-girl. Unlike his morally blind wife, however, Macbeth knows what murder will cost, and initially at least, has a strong sense of what is right. McAvoy thrillingly suggests a man on the rack of his own guilty mind who learns that the only way to secure his position and silence his conscience is to become inured to atrocity with further killings.
He also does full justice to the haunting poetry of the last act in which Macbeth realises just what he has lost – not least himself and any sense of purpose or meaning in life. It is the reason that Macbeth is a genuinely tragic character and not just a serial killer.
Among the supporting cast, Jamie Ballard movingly captures the terrible grief of Macduff when he learns that his wife and children have been killed, Hugh Ross brings a beautiful sense of moral decency into this dark play, doubling as Duncan and the doctor, while Forbes Masson proves a powerful Banquo, not least in his terrifying appearance at the Macbeths’ disastrous dinner party.
This is a gripping and genuinely startling production – and would be more effective still with a speedier running time.
Tickets 0844 871 7615; www.atgtickets.com/london