A dystopian Scotland, separated from the UK due to years of economic disaster, is the setting for Jamie Lloyd’s fast paced, high-energy production of Macbeth. As the opener of the Trafalgar Transformed season, Lloyd has dusted the cobwebs off Shakespeare’s complex tragedy and given us a play that does not reflect the past but rather addresses the present. Power, politics and traditional values are central. Pretty fitting, then, that the theatre is on the doorstep of British politics in Whitehall.
The main house has been reconfigured to create an intimate space for actors and the audience. Almost one third of the audience is onstage, the rest are brought much closer to the action, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere that really complements the play. This staging arrangement is effective in heightening tension and fear – a gas-mask wearing witch holding a bloodied meat cleaver is scary, even more so when she’s less than a metre away from the front row.
James McAvoy in the title role cuts an imposing figure. McAvoy’s Macbeth is not completely evil; to begin with he presents us with a man who knows the difference between right and wrong, and who is not that far removed from most of us. You almost like him, as McAvoy brings humour and a sense of camaraderie to the role. It is this underlying humanity that makes his downfall all the more shocking, as his desire for power battles with his conscience. He becomes terrifying with spit flying, manic laughter and flashing eyes.
Claire Foy’s Doc Martin-wearing Lady Macbeth is successfully manipulative. In the first scenes you wish she would become a bit more malevolent; however, she soon comes into her own when she stumbles on, arms caked in blood. Her sleepwalking speech is excellent – moments of stillness and quiet contrast with hysterical desperation to create a chilling performance.
There are moments of quiet, but they are no less intense and captivating. Jamie Ballard as a grief stricken Macduff makes the audience feel uncomfortable, as if we are invading his privacy upon learning of the murder of his family. His is a moving performance that captures the brutality of war on a very personal level.Nothing is held back when it comes to blood and violence. If you are sitting in the front row, be warned – you are in the firing line. This is immersive theatre at its finest. Blood pours from the ceiling like rain during the banquet, drenching actors and revealing a blood-soaked Forbes Masson as Banquo. The fight sequences are so convincing that they have you holding your breath, as knives and fists are swung through the air. This is not a show for the faint hearted; I had to shut my eyes at the brutal murder of Lady Macduff and her child. The level of violence is shocking and it should be. There is no way to make light of the line “unseam’d him from the nave to the chops”, it is after all a play about the terrible effects of conflict.
The only drawback to the constant ferocity is that occasionally the poetics of play are lost to violence. Having said that, you don’t have a feel of actors just speaking Shakespeare, the whole company performs and speaks with complete conviction. These honest performances make it possible for the audience to follow and understand one of Shakespeare’s most complex plays. The use of Scottish accents makes the play seem more real and alive. Jamie Lloyd has taken Shakespeare’s words but the rest of the show is a brand new creation. This production is a breath of fresh air, a play from the past that is most definitely for the present.
Macbeth is playing at the Trafalgar Studios until 27 April For more information and tickets see www.macbethwestend.com.