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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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear