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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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times