Reviewed: Macbeth at Trafalgar Studios

The last king of Scotland.

Macbeth
Trafalgar Studios

Macbeth Trafalgar Studios James McAvoy’s Macbeth is blood-spattered from the moment he strides on to the small, constricted stage at the 400-capacity Trafalgar Studios, located a short walk from the political power play of Westminster. The stage has been raised and extended into the first four rows of seats. There are additional seats on the stage itself. The effect is one of intense claustrophobia and it’s as if, clustered so tightly around the players, the audience itself is implicated in Macbeth’s murderous crimes.

McAvoy has spoken of how playing the role of Macbeth is “like being mentally ill and being beaten up a lot”. Jamie Lloyd’s production is as visceral and boisterous as any I have seen. The emphasis is less on the poetry and the inner torment of Macbeth than on the externalities of action, combat and slaughter.

At various times, Macbeth vomits, bleeds and spits as he kills out of ambition and then keeps on killing, because he can, because he must. The sense of propulsion is all. In this version he is present at the murder of Macduff’s wife and children. In a gripping and desolate extended scene, he thrusts a knife into Macduff’s young son who is hiding beneath a table on top of which his mother lies dead, having just been strangled.

Macbeth has cropped hair, a thin gingery beard and a thick, muscular neck. He is young (McAvoy is 33) and highly mobile, skidding across the stage on his knees, descending from a ladder with the speed of a fireman. His accent, like most of the characters – with the baffling exception of Macduff – is generically Scottish. He dresses in steeltoe- capped boots, army fatigues and a mangy jumper that could have been borrowed from one of Beckett’s tramps. He is self-possessed but also self-doubting: he knows he is a usurper and that, no matter how much blood he spills, he too will be usurped. He understands what he has lost and how ultimately he is his own murderer.

McAvoy delivers the long, final soliloquy of self-recognition – “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow . . .” – sitting on a chair tilted slightly backwards, in a rare moment of repose. He is not melodramatically self-pitying, merely self-aware and resigned, and he cackles at the absurdity of it all and the meaninglessness.

The setting is the near future after some unexplained ecological catastrophe, in a ruined, now-independent Scotland (Alex Salmond take note). One feels keenly in mood and atmosphere the influence of Cormac McCarthy’s great dystopian novel The Road (2006), with its shattered landscapes and “days more gray each one than what had gone before”. The air is fetid and the interiors are dimly lit. The furniture is scarcely serviceable and the stage is as gory as a butcher’s shop. Even nature is eating itself.

The three witches, or weird sisters, first emerge from trapdoors beneath the stage in an opening sequence that never ceases to startle no matter how it is played or reinterpreted. The RSC production of Macbeth I saw at Stratford in 2011, set against the dissolution of the monasteries and the anti- Catholic pogroms of the Reformation, had not adults but three blonde children in the role of the witches. They entered suspended on wires from above, like macabre fairies, their voices echoing menacingly.

In Lloyd’s production some of the minor characters carry guns, while Banquo’s son wears headphones and is listening to music when Macbeth’s assassins strike. The three witches, who wear gas masks, appear to be looking at mobile computer screens when they first encounter Macbeth. It’s as if they’re reading the text of his future but, like mediums, can only speak in metaphor and riddles.

Yet, on the whole, technology seems to be no longer working or is of little use in this ravaged Scotland, “so afraid to know itself”. There are no telephones and Macbeth sends his wife not an email but a letter in which she reads his account of the witches’ strange prophecies. No sooner has she read the letter than Claire Foy’s Lady Macbeth is demanding to be “unsexed” as she readies herself for the diabolical deeds to come and for the violation of her own humanity.

It’s awkward, this sudden transition Lady Macbeth must undergo from good to evil, from reading her husband’s letter to persuading him there’s no alternative to killing a king, and Foy manages it well enough. It’s clear from the text of the play and from the interaction between husband and wife that the Macbeths have recently endured the death of a child. But one struggles to feel the pathos of their loss, partly because there’s little feeling of genuine erotic need or enraptured mutuality between McAvoy and Hoy, these co-conspirators and would-be king killers.

Lloyd’s Macbeth is the first in a season of works, some newly commissioned, that will explore the compulsions and compromises of power at the Trafalgar, “just a few steps away from the centre of British politics”. They’ve started well.

Trafalgar Studios, London SW1, until 27 April

James McAvoy as Macbeth and Claire Foy as Lady Macbeth. Photograph: Johan Persson

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 04 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Pistorius

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Manchester will keep being Manchester – anything else would let the victims down

The city will survive even this bitter attack on the young and their freedom to have fun.

It was probably the first time many people had ever heard of Ariana Grande. That in itself is horribly significant, this perverted generational dimension to the plan. Manchester throbs and pounds to the sound of music every night. Most evenings of the week, I have a choice of gigs or concerts I can go to in the city. Some nights I make several in succession – “double dropping”, as we say in a term borrowed from drum’n’bass and drug culture. You probably wouldn’t find me at an Ariana Grande concert; her brand of slick teen, YouTube-friendly R’n’B is not really my thing, nor is it meant to be. But it is very much the thing of a very great many 14-year-old girls.

Targeting that Manchester show, picking the MEN Arena that night, choosing that as the place where you would detonate a nail-filled explosive in a crowded, teeming foyer as the suicide bomber did, seems to be an attack not just on Manchester, not just on pop culture, not just on youth even, but – unbelievable as this would seem – a specific, bitter, nihilistic attack on children, girls, young women and their freedom to have fun in the way they want.

There are some who say that modern Manchester began with a bomb blast. In 1996, in one of their final, almost desultory and wilful acts of valedictory violence, the IRA set off an explosion in the city centre, down on Corporation Street by the weary and unlovely Arndale Centre, that squat retail edifice of 1970s brutalism. There, on Saturday 15 June 1996, the IRA triggered a truck bomb that was the largest explosive device detonated in Britain since the Second World War. No one was killed but more than 200 people were injured. The structural damage was enormous. Many buildings, shabby and smart alike, were damaged beyond repair and had to be demolished. The city was a building site for years.

Most of the work was done in time for the new millennium, though, at a cost of an estimated £1.2bn. Out of the rubble (literally) the modern Manchester of sleek trams, hipster bars, street food and chic hotels emerged. Until then, for all its vigour and self-belief, Manchester still looked like a postwar city of faded grandeur and former magnificence; rough around the edges, its heart still pockmarked with strewn bricks and boarded entries, its fringes often empty and desolate. The city felt like the music of Joy Division, the Smiths and Happy Mondays sounded: rain-lashed, bleak, sardonic, hedonistic but in a bug-eyed, low-rent, faintly menacing way. The jokes and myths were of rain and drugs and guns. Now they are of beard barbers and vintage bicycles, of Chorlton luvvies, the Northern Quarter, MediaCity and millionaire footballers.

To the people of Manchester and beyond, there is no credible comparison between the events of 21 years ago and this week. Five days after the 1996 blast, the IRA issued a statement in which it claimed responsibility, but regretted any injury to “civilians”. Wreaking injury and death on the innocent is precisely what atrocities such as the MEN Arena attack are about. Indeed, it is all they are about when viewed through anything other than the warped, distorting lens of fanaticism and barbarism. Whatever your feelings about Irish republicanism, and however feebly the right-wing press tries to kindle that old demonology to discredit Jeremy Corbyn, Manchester, like all north-western cities in England, has huge Irish and Catholic populations. These families and pubs and streets may not have sympathised with the IRA but their aims and their struggle would have been a familiar thread of family life and local culture. Those aims did not seem unreasonable to many: a united homeland, free of an occupying military colonial presence.

By contrast, it is hard for anyone sane to comprehend what Isis or its deranged “lone wolf” sympathisers can possibly want, beyond their own martyrdom and an end to what we think of as civilisation. It is a new dark age.

“I have no words,” Ariana Grande posted after the attack. Others in fact had quite a few words, to which I am, of course, now adding. At times like this we reach first for cliché, but irritation at social media feeds soon softened when one realised that people mostly meant well and, God knows, meaning well was something to cherish and value in the aftermath of such violence.

A few people invoked the Manchester of laddish rock culture, of Oasis, Factory Records and being “mad for it”. They talked of the fact that Manchester “rocked hard”; and, well-intentioned as this was, it somewhat misunderstands what had happened. The bomb was, as far as we can guess, an attack on the fans of a young American woman and entertainer, on the frivolousness and foolishness and fun of young girlhood, on lipstick and dressing up and dancing, on “boyfs” and “bezzies” and all the other freedoms that so enrage the fanatics and contradict their idiot dogmas. Hatred of women is a smouldering core of their wider, deeper loathing for us. But to single out children feels like a new low of wickedness.

We held our breath when we heard the president of the United States had shared his thoughts on the tragedy. His comment on the bombers (“I won’t call them monsters, because they would like that term. They would think that’s a great name. I will call them . . . losers, because that’s what they are – they’re losers”) was as crassly expressed as usual and drew the usual sniggering. But, in its casual bullishness, Trump’s was a strangely Mancunian response. This is not a city that shrinks and frets and wrings its hands. This is city that is used to winning and will happily call its rivals “losers”. As my friend John Niven tweeted with characteristic gusto: “To the sordid animals making nail bombs: in 1940 the Luftwaffe dropped 443 tons of high explosive on Manchester in 48 hrs. You’ll lose too.”

In the endless, repetitive rolling news after the bombing, I heard another well-intentioned voice, this time a media-friendly psychologist, saying tremulously that “Manchester will never be the same again”. Well, to use the local argot: sorry, chuck, but that’s bobbins. Manchester will mourn and weep but it will come through and get on and it will continue to be Manchester, to the delight of its citizens and the amused exasperation of nearly every other British city.

To not be the same, to change, would be to let the victims down. It may be a little harder to get into gigs for a while; the evenings may be a little more awkward and inconvenient, as air travel has become – but that is a small cost compared to what those kids and their families paid. As a great man once said, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” It will be the price of victory.

Stuart Maconie is a radio DJ, television presenter, writer and critic working in the field of pop music and culture. His best-selling books include Cider with Roadies and Adventures on the High Teas; he currently hosts the afternoon show on BBC 6Music with Mark Radcliffe.

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