By William Shakespeare
Trafalgar Studios, Whitehall, London, SW1
Until April 27, 2013
James McAvoy bounds onto the stage, dripping in blood, hatchet in one hand, machete in the other, skids across the floor and lets out an almighty shriek, narrowly avoiding tumbling onto those cowering in the front rows. It’s certainly an entrance and a portent of things to come: we are in the world of schlock horror.
Now a movie star, McAvoy’s return to the West End stage is a triumph in that he has a real commanding presence. Hordes of schoolgirls won’t need too much bribing with additional retail opportunities to sit through this Scottish Play. He is, however, somewhat at sea in a production, directed by Jamie Lloyd, which mistakes action for drama, often mangles the verse and where everyone is essentially too young for their parts. It has all the unpolished urgency of a student DramaSoc production, but never really gets under the skin of this great play.
It is set in a dystopian post-apocalyptic future. Is there any other kind, I hear you moan? We’re also definitely in Scotland, with fine Scottish accents in evidence, which all give the piece a curious gravitas which it badly needs. If you are new to this country, I’d recommend renting Trainspotting first, to acclimatise yourself.
The aesthetic is indeed very Irvine Welsh – its really grim up north, everyone is in mud and rags, and the chic gloom of Adam Silverman’s filmic lighting leaves us literally squinting at times. It’s brutal and visceral, and yet every trick it pulls to approximate cinematic realism must strike the younger audience members as quite futile – weaned, as we’re supposed to believe they are, on Saw II.
Soutra Gilmour’s squalid industrial grunge design extends beyond the proscenium as the theater has been radically transformed (this is the first outing for a new production slate called Trafalgar Transformed). The old stage has been raised two meters, allowing for every effective use of trapdoors and industrial grilles, which also allows the blood to drain away. The first four rows have been removed and audience also placed at the rear of the stage to approximate a traverse type stage in this rather difficult space. This adds to the intimacy but it curiously limits the staging possibilities for the director, and the clarity of establishing place is often muddled. The all-encompassing monochrome grime doesn’t help either in delineating the Macbeths’ aristocratic status. If they’ve all fallen this far, you feel they’re all just one rabble; again this is confusing.
Claire Foy’s Lady Macbeth starts at a high pitch and has nowhere else to go. She ends up a cross between Ophelia and a whiny college girl trying to rein in her hothead lug of a boyfriend. It’s partly a factor of being too young for the part – the crafty Lady is better presented with middle-aged wiles. Jamie Ballard is adrift as Macduff, particularly in the scene where he responds to the slaughter of his family. However Hugh Ross brings a welcome stillness, doubling as Duncan and the Doctor.
We get slow strangulation, puking into a toilet bowl, child slaughter, more blood than an abattoir and a nifty beheading. What we don’t get is nuance. The soliloquies are transformed from interior monologues into hearty declamations.
For a production that wears its realism like bling, it actually misses out on so much of the deeper realities of the text. The thesis that it’s just about the making of a tyrant is over-egged.
As film critics are prone to say about Vin Diesel movies, it’s certainly “high octane”.