By Claire Allfree
4 out of 5 stars
Macbeth is an apocalyptic play – a drama in which the unnatural actions of one man appear to overthrow the usual order of everything around him. The night Macbeth murders King Duncan and sets in motion his bloody ascent to the throne, Duncan’s horses go mad and start eating each other.
Jamie Lloyd’s brutal production, set in a post independent Scotland that is unlikely to do much for Alex Salmond’s campaign, evokes that sense of desperate, dystopian chaos right from the start.
Scotland is ravaged, torn apart by in-fighting, social breakdown and climate change – the witches wear gas masks. No one seems to have washed for months.
A feral, violent charge hangs in the air. Nearly every scene takes place in what looks like a makeshift bunker. The audience, pressed forward against the stage in this reconfigured auditorium with several rows of seats on the stage itself, is forced right inside this cannibalised, paranoid landscape. You can almost smell the blood.
Amid this, James McAvoy delivers a performance that will please both fans of X-Men and those who prefer his more feminine side.
Boyish, charming, initially a bit of a joker, he is soon puking in the toilet and hiding from his wife in tears behind a table. Lloyd suggests without making it too explicit that the Macbeths’ loss of a child is partly behind their killing spree – in the case of Claire Foy’s magnetic, wiry Lady Macbeth, that loss seems to have driven her insane.
For Macbeth meanwhile, one of the production’s great moments comes when he stops for just a second on hearing a child cry out after his men have killed Macduff’s wife, before ramming a sword through the cupboard.
McAvoy carefully shows how Macbeth’s external world gradually becomes a hellish internal one. There is madness here but also a terrible sanity. Right to the end he suggests an existential struggle between the path he has chosen and a clear realisation of its consequences.
There are excellent performances elsewhere – notably Jamie Ballard’s Macduff, who delivers the dreadful ‘all my pretty chickens?’ lines in tears. Lloyd perhaps piles on the apocalyptic aesthetic a bit too much but the high voltage impact is worth it. This is sinewy, grimy Shakespeare that finds full expression for the play’s extraordinarily terrifying imagery – and is a terrific start to Lloyd’s new season at the Trafalgar.
Until Apr 27, Trafalgar Studios. www.macbethwestend.com