Macbeth, National Theatre - Rufus Norris goes for drab, gory and tricksy

Images Brinkhoff Mögenburg/National Theatre

★★ MACBETH, NATIONAL THEATRE Rufus Norris goes for drab, gory and tricksy

Fair is foul and foul is drab, gory and tricksy in Rufus Norris’s first stab at Shakespeare direction at the National Theatre, Macbeth. It embodies the play's most clichéd quotation (the one about sound, fury, and nada), though whether that's intended as a joke is hard to work out. Lovely Rory Kinnear plays Macbeth like a third Mitchell brother from EastEnders, bullheaded and thick-necked, all short jabbing breaths, strapped into his jerkin with parcel tape. His castle is a pile of old backpacks and broken chairs in a grotty shed reigned over by a starved-looking Lady M.

Eyes and ears are disappointed equally. Designed to look horrid by NT faithful Rae Smith from eyewatering amounts of black binbag plastic and what looks like a scrapheap challenge, the play is staged as if “now, after a civil war”, and has enough chopped-off heads and ripped-out foetuses to please the average bloodthirsty teen doing it for GCSE.

The Olivier’s dismayingly totalitarian sound system, embellished with much echoey woowooings and sniggerings for the witches and ghosts, ensures that you can't tell from the overhead speakers who is talking on left or right. Which, when everyone speaks at a galloping pace, is tiresome, counterproductive and not what live theatre should offer. (It also spoiled Follies.)

I groped for Norris’s idea of what drives Macbeth onto his hideous course, impatiently murdering his way to the throne

Disrupted senses apart, the question arises why Norris picked this Shakespeare play for his debut. His vision is not bleakly witty, or camp, or straight. It could have had some up-to-date fun about Scotland, but the territory is inoffensively vague and all-inclusive (though could the slimy black crag be hinting at Edinburgh's Castle Rock?). Accents start with Dagenham and range all the way up the M1. Macbeth is Estuary, Macduff is Northern Irish. Most clothing is in the dirty-grey range – this might plausibly be fashion choice (Moritz Junge loves grey) or the dramatic effect of fog and filthy air – aside from two fantastically OTT evening gowns for Ladies Macbeth and Macduff and a natty red suit for whoever is currently king.

The rag-tag-and-bobtail randomness of the characters’ appearances might, I suppose, indicate loss of identity, the last assortment of people left, fighting like rats over the remains. But if so, what is left here that is specific to Macbeth, rather than King Lear or any apocalyptic play? What order is there to be lost or gained? What human laws left to be outraged by mere murder?

No wonder the audience found quite a bit to laugh at. There’s much London Road-ish bustling as the cast of 20 dash about the cavernous black stage (pictured above) playing familiar dodgems with the Olivier’s over-used revolve, or shinnying up poles to hang body parts from, amid rampant electronic music and sound, which often drown out speeches that we need to hear. The witches are straight off a fairground ghost train, their reciting competing comically with spooky whimpers and jungle moans.

Anne-Marie Duff has the grey and hungry look of a scavenger, scraping at her once fertile body as if she hates it

Still worse, Macbeth's great cries against guilty conscience and ruptured sleep are lost in gabbles during stage business, and the production doesn't entice one to believe in the hold that witches and phantasms have on this workaday soldier. I groped for Norris’s idea of what drives Macbeth onto his hideous course, impatiently murdering his way to the throne. Thrall to the dark forces? Terror of his wife? A sense of aggrievement? Sure, superstition is a hard thing for today’s audiences to accept, and it is easy to blame Lady Macbeth. But in Shakespeare’s time, witchcraft was an everyday belief, and the modern international popularity of the homicidal Thane and his ruthless, sleepwalking wife implies a greater sensitivity elsewhere to the play’s interior gall than we’re favoured with here.

The casting of Kinnear embodies this agnosticism. His bland, small-featured face is naturally unrevealing, a pragmatic, who-me? modern face good for mandarins (Skyfall) or sophisticated evil bastards (Iago), but he delivers an underwhelming Macbeth, more flustered about missing a career promotion than supping with the devil. The peculiar implications of the Macbeths’ relationship in modern terms are skated over: “Bring forth men-children only” is almost an aside, rather than a jolt.

Anne-Marie Duff has facial architecture to spare and, in her vest and shrunken jeans, the grey and hungry look of a scavenger, scraping at her once fertile body as if she hates it (pictured right). She finds a telling physicality for her damaged character, but, like Kinnear, on opening night she tended to waggle her head emphatically as she spoke, a sign that a player doesn’t believe in the cards she’s holding.

There's a silly pair of murderers, a druggy young couple straight off Little Britain, but Kevin Harvey and Amaka Okafor provide a Banquo and Lady Macduff who rise vocally above the flippancy around.

So is this all a provocative exercise in cynicism? Marina Warner’s excellent programme essay argues that Shakespeare’s plays “have a unique capacity to speak to the times” and that today’s unstable, gullible times are once again open to stories about the fear of losing tomorrows. Norris’s dull production on opening night was pretty much demonstrating the opposite.

  • Macbeth in repertory until June 23 at the National Theatre/Olivier. It will be broadcast to cinemas via NT Live on May 10

@ismeneb on Twitter