This Is A Sorry Night

By Ian Shuttleworth

Anne-Marie Duff may well be the finest Lady Macbeth I’ve ever seen. From first reading hubby’s letter about the witches’ predictions until her final somnambulistic disintegration, she makes every word vibrate with high-tension significance. This is fairly surprising, given that her husband is played by Rory Kinnear, a wonderful actor who’s particularly strong on Shakespeare. Here he nails the martial and villainous sides of Macbeth, but a fuller portrait eludes him... or, more accurately, eludes Rufus Norris, the director of this National Theatre revival.

Norris knows what he wants: upheaval, violence, heartlessness. And gloom. ‘Hell is murky,’ says the sleepwalking Lady M, but Norris seems to have told lighting designer James Farncombe to take this as a literal instruction. Stephen Boxer’s King Duncan, normally one of the most innocent characters in the play, becomes a figure of sometimes brutal whimsy. As for his sons, Malcolm, the elder, has his big scene in which he pretends to be thoroughly wicked in order to test Macduff’s moral scruples, and to persuade the audience that he’s not just the rightful heir but would make an actually good king – cut entirely. Gone. Not a word of it left. And younger son, Donalbain, er, cut entirely. Gone. Not a word of him left.

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays, though seldom immune from nips and tucks. Norris, however, wields the blue pencil with a will. Some of the best-known lines in the play are dispatched, others snipped in half or rephrased without any ear for metre or the music of the verse. This side of things is evidently just not what Norris cares about. What he cares about is that callous (though murky) overall vision. It’s modern Gothic: scraps and tatters (Macbeth’s armour is held on with parcel tape) principally in a choice of two colours, dark grey or black. The stage is dominated by a large, arced ramp which, on the stage revolve, becomes the principal entrance/exit, the demesne of the witches (who gibber a lot but don’t establish a supernatural influence on events) or a looming backdrop.

It has a momentum of its own, but it’s not that of the play. Duff may be great, but the husband- wife chemistry is largely missing. Patrick O’Kane, one of my favourite underrated actors, deploys his trademark thousand- yard stare to marvellous effect as Macduff. He played Macbeth himself a decade ago, for the RSC, who are about to unveil Christopher Eccleston in the role. It’s like theatre’s equivalent of the Britpop wars of the 1990s, when Blur and Oasis released singles on the same day. I suspect this one’s about to be won by the traditionalists.

Until 23 June at the National Theatre, London SE1: 020-7452 3000,