Reviewed: Macbeth at Trafalgar Studios

The last king of Scotland.

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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Has this physicist found the key to reality?

Whenever we have ventured into new experimental territory, we’ve discovered that our previous “knowledge” was woefully incomplete. So what to make of Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli?

Albert Einstein knew the truth. “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” However good we are at maths – or theoretical physics – our efforts to apply it to the real world are always going to mislead. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that reality is not what it seems – even when, like the Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli, you’ve done the maths.

It is a lesson we could certainly learn from the history of science. Whenever we have ventured into new experimental territory, we’ve discovered that our previous “knowledge” was woefully incomplete. With the invention of the telescope, for instance, we found new structures in space; Jupiter’s moons and sunspots were just the beginning. The microscope took us the other way and showed us the fine structure of the biological world – creatures that looked uninteresting to the naked eye turned out to be intricate and delicate, with scales and hooks and other minute features. We also once thought that the atom lacked structure; today’s technology, such as the particle colliders at the Cern research centre in Geneva and Fermilab in the United States, have allowed us to prove just how wrong that idea was. At every technological turn, we have redefined the nature of reality.

Unfortunately, we don’t yet have the technology to take the next step. The present challenge to physicists seeking to discover how things really are is to investigate our environment on a scale known as the “Planck length”. Rovelli tries to convey just how small this is. Imagine, he says, a walnut magnified until it is the size of the universe. If we were to magnify the Planck length by that much, we still couldn’t see it. “Even after having been enormously magnified thus, it would still be a million times smaller than the actual walnut shell was before magnification,” he tells us.

We simply cannot probe the universe at these scales using current methods, because it would require a particle accelerator the size of a small galaxy. So – for now, at least – our search for the nature of reality is in the hands of the mathematicians and theorists. And, as Einstein would tell us, that is far from ideal.

That is also doubly true when theoretical physicists are working with two highly successful, but entirely incompatible, theories of how the universe works. The first is general relativity, developed by Einstein over 100 years ago. This describes the universe on cosmic scales, and utterly undermines our intuition. Rovelli describes Einstein’s work as providing “a phantasmagorical succession of predictions that resemble the delirious ravings of a madman but which have all turned out to be true”.

In relativity, time is a mischievous sprite: there is no such thing as a universe-wide “now”, and movement through space makes once-reliable measures such as length and time intervals stretch and squeeze like putty in Einstein’s hands. Space and time are no longer the plain stage on which our lives play out: they are curved, with a geometry that depends on the mass and energy in any particular region. Worse, this curvature determines our movements. Falling because of gravity is in fact falling because of curves in space and time. Gravity is not so much a force as a geometric state of the universe.

The other troublesome theory is quantum mechanics, which describes the subatomic world. It, too, is a century old, and it has proved just as disorienting as relativity. As Rovelli puts it, quantum mechanics “reveals to us that, the more we look at the detail of the world, the less constant it is. The world is not made up of tiny pebbles, it is a world of vibrations, a continuous fluctuation, a microscopic swarming of fleeting micro-events.”

But here is the most disturbing point. Both of these theories are right, in the sense that their predictions have been borne out in countless experiments. And both must be wrong, too. We know that because they contradict one another, and because each fails to take the other into account when trying to explain how the universe works. “The two pillars of 20th-century physics – general relativity and quantum mechanics – could not be more different from each other,” Rovelli writes. “A university student attending lectures on general relativity in the morning, and others on quantum mechanics in the afternoon, might be forgiven for concluding that his professors are fools, or that they haven’t talked to each other for at least a century.”

Physicists are aware of the embarrassment here. Hence the effort to unite relativity and quantum mechanics in a theory of “quantum gravity” that describes reality at the Planck scale. It is a daunting task that was the undoing of both Einstein and his quantum counterpart Erwin Schrödinger. The two men spent the last years of their working lives trying to solve this problem, but failed to make any headway. Today’s physicists have some new ideas and mathematical intuitions, but they may also be heading towards a dead end. Not that we’ll find out for sure any time soon. If the history of science offers us a second lesson, it is that scientific progress is unbearably slow.

In the first third of his book, Rovelli presents a fascinating dissection of the history of our search for reality. The mathematical cosmology of Ptolemy, in which the Earth stood at the centre of the universe and the other heavenly bodies revolved around it, ruled for a thousand years. It was unfairly deposed: the calculations based on Copernicus’s sun-centred model “did not work much better than those of Ptolemy; in fact, in the end, they turned out to work less well”, the author observes.

It was the telescope that pushed us forward. Johannes Kepler’s painstaking obser­vations opened the door to the novel laws that accurately and succinctly described the planets’ orbits around the sun. “We are now in 1600,” Rovelli tells his readers, “and for the first time, humanity finds out how to do something better than what was done in Alexandria more than a thousand years earlier.”

Not that his version of history is perfect. “Experimental science begins with Galileo,” Rovelli declares – but there are any number of Renaissance and pre-Renaissance figures who would baulk at that claim. In the 12th century the Islamic scholar al-Khazini published a book full of experiments that he had used to test the theories of mechanics. The man who helped Galileo achieve his first academic position, Guidobaldo del Monte, also carried out many experiments, and possibly taught Galileo the craft.

It’s a small misjudgement. More ­irritating is Rovelli’s dismissal of any path towards quantum gravity but his own, a theory known as “loop quantum gravity”. He spends the last third of the book on explaining this idea, which he considers the “most promising” of all the assaults on the true ­nature of reality. He does not mention that he is in a minority here.

Most physicists pursuing quantum gravity give a different approach – string theory – greater chance of success, or at least of bearing useful fruit. String theory suggests that all the forces and particles in nature are the result of strings of energy vibrating in different ways. It is an unproven (and perhaps unprovable) hypothesis, but its mathematical innovations are nonetheless seeding interesting developments in many different areas of physics.

However, Rovelli is not impressed. He summarily dismisses the whole idea, characterising its objectives as “premature, given
current knowledge”. It’s a somewhat unbecoming attitude, especially when we have just spent so many pages celebrating millennia of ambitious attempts to make sense of the universe. He also strikes a jarring note when he seems to revel in the Large Hadron Collider at Cern having found no evidence for “supersymmetry”, an important scaffold for string theory.

As readers of his bestselling Seven Brief Lessons on Physics will know, Rovelli writes with elegance, clarity and charm. This new book, too, is a joy to read, as well as being an intellectual feast. For all its laudable ambition, however, you and I are unlikely ever to learn the truth about quantum gravity. Future generations of scientists and writers will have the privilege of writing the history of this particular subject. With theory ranging so far ahead of experimental support, neither strings nor loops, nor any of our other attempts to define quantum gravity, are likely to be correct. Reality is far more elusive than it seems.

Michael Brooks’s books include “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” (Profile)

Reality Is Not What It Seems: the Journey to Quantum Gravity by Carlo Rovelli. Translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre is published by Allen Lane (255pp, £16.99)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood