Anne-Marie Duff and Rory Kinnear star in Macbeth at the National Theatre. CREDIT: BRINKHOFF MÖGENBURG
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Sound and fury: why Macbeth is having a resurgence in the age of Trump and Brexit

Five performances of Macbeth are on offer in Britain this spring: along with a ballet, a movie, and a novelisation by Jo Nesbo.

It’s rare for the UK’s two leading classical theatres – the National and the Royal Shakespeare Company – to stage the same play within a fortnight. So the clash of their Macbeths has the feel of a theatrical Real Madrid vs Barcelona, even if the fixture proves dismayingly one-sided.

There’s a fascination, though, in seeing how talent teams, in separate rehearsal rooms, approached the same material. Both productions channel the cinema. Polly Findlay’s RSC staging has the feel of a cult 1970s horror movie, a conceit heightened by projected captions of place (“Glamis”, “England”) and time. Shakespeare’s jump- cuts during the climactic battle scene, which seem to prefigure film, trigger punctuating flashes of “Later”.

In this sinister milieu that makes you glad theatre isn’t watched alone, the witches are titches: young girls squeaking out their prophecies while cradling dolls. This genuinely scary trio can be seen as the ghosts of the babies the text suggests the Macbeths have lost; perhaps they are why the bereaved father now seeks to “bring forth men children only”. The Porter, often a redundant role, marks each of the play’s multiple deaths with a chalk stroke on the back brick wall.

The research DVDs Rufus Norris seems to have been watching while prepping his National production come from the post-apocalyptic genre. The state that Macbeth claims bloodily from King Duncan and then defends from Duncan’s son, Malcolm, is defined by a massive mechanised ramp resembling a motorway overpass. The ambitious couple live not at Glamis Castle, but in a caravan amid shattered outbuildings.

Times are so tough that the new king’s armour consists of packing board strapped with masking tape. The, mainly brutal, reviews of the production have mocked the prevalence of plastic supermarket bags, often carrying severed heads, but that is one of the cleverer touches: a topical nod to the fear that plastic will survive anything.

Filmic influence is not the only overlap. Both versions have Lady Macbeths with Irish backgrounds: Niamh Cusack at Stratford, Anne-Marie Duff in London. Does the Celtic variety of female strength somehow overcome feminist concerns about the pushy woman stereotype of Lady M? And, uncannily, both shows cast the Porter as a Geordie (Michael Hodgson beside the Avon, Trevor Fox next to the Thames).

In the title role, Christopher Eccleston (RSC) and Rory Kinnear (NT) seem united in rooting their portrayals in the soldier’s confessions that “my mind is full of scorpions” and “then comes my fit again”. Jerks of speech and body suggest that each of these thanes has mental health issues: perhaps bi-polarity, in their clear arc from under-confidence to over-confidence. The soliloquies differ most – delivered by Kinnear as inner monologues, while the other actors freeze-frame, but Eccleston interacting with the audience like a stand-up.

If Eccleston and Cusack (a riveting depiction of frustrated female power) would win a dance-off between the two couples, it’s because their director provides a society precise enough to outline the prizes for which the characters are slaughtering each other. Norris’s presentation of the Scots as a people without a state makes rare sense of Duncan’s sudden decision to spend a night at the Macbeths’: perhaps, as Saddam Hussein and Yasser Arafat were reputed to do, he sleeps under random roofs for security reasons. But, in the completely non-Caledonian nation shown, it’s unclear why Macbeth bothers to kill Duncan, unless, perhaps, to get a bigger caravan in a fancier patch of wasteland.

These stage productions are two of five Macbeths on offer in Britain this spring: along with a ballet, a movie, and a novelisation by Jo Nesbo. Some have attributed the current popularity of the play to Brexit – it is set in a bitterly divided Britain – but it seems more relevant to me that Macbeth is about someone who seizes an unexpected chance to lead, then finds government a struggle.

While there is no suggestion that Theresa May, Donald Trump or Emmanuel Macron stabbed their predecessor, our politics is full of rapidly promoted novices whose ambition was dampened by reality. If Gordon Brown seemed, by birthplace and personality, an exact Macbeth, the play has subsequently seemed a general democratic handbook.

Some reviews suggested that the National may be facing its own leadership crisis after the artistic director’s Macbeth extended a run of critically rubbished productions including Salome and Common. In fact, the Norris regime is doing well with new English writing (Nina Raine’s tremendous Consent soon follows David Eldridge’s excellent Beginning to the West End), and American work: Follies, Network, John.

But Norris needs to show that he can direct and produce Shakespeare, especially as the RSC, confirmed by its exciting and original take on the Scottish play, is looking so sure-footed on the classics.

The RSC’s “Macbeth” runs until 18 January 2019 and the National’s until 23 June 2018

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special

Quiz recreates the atmosphere of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? studio. Credit: JOHAN PERSSON
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Quiz is a fast-paced, hi-tech retelling of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? cheating scandal

This tale of the “coughing major” is a nostalgic romp through the rise of reality television.

As the interval began at James Graham’s new play, Quiz, I turned to my companion and said: “Wow, this is like telly – in a theatre.” (For clarity, this is a compliment.) This fast-paced, hi-tech production tells the story of the “coughing major” Charles Ingram, who won the top prize on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and then had it taken away again after being accused of cheating.

It provides a nostalgic romp through past ITV shows and the rise of reality television, involves the only audience participation not to make me cringe straight through my seat and into the row behind, and, y’know, also asks whether our memories are so fallible that they are essentially useless, undermining the very nature of truth itself. There’s also a cracking impression of Chris Tarrant.

James Graham is on a roll: last year, the Almeida’s production of his new drama Ink transferred to the West End to the Duke of York, while the theatre next door hosted his original comedy Labour of Love.

The latter, but not the former, won an Olivier Award on 8 April, which is nothing short of a travesty. Labour of Love was a perfectly serviceable romcom ported to a constituency office, but its lighter elements somehow jarred with its ambition to Say Something About The Left. In Ink, on the other hand, the comedy bolstered the play’s moral message rather than undermined it. The play showed how the fun and excitement of the early days of the Sun swelled and distorted until the cheeky smile became a rictus grin; the second half then plunged us into darkness with a grisly murder and the collection of a Faustian bargain.

In Quiz, the comedy performs the same function as it did in Ink: it lulls and seduces the audience, leading them invisibly down a particular path, so they can then be shown how easily they were influenced. The first half is styled as “the case for the prosecution”. We hear that Ingram’s wife Diana and her brother had already appeared on the show, having devised a way to beat the supposedly random selection process. Mrs Ingram had phoned another contestant, college lecturer Tecwen Whittock, whom she vaguely knew, the night before her husband’s second appearance; he was then recorded coughing suspiciously the next day whenever the right multiple choice answer was read out. Hearing all that meant that when we were asked to vote at the interval – using keypads attached to the seats – on Major Ingram’s guilt, the audience delivered an unambiguous verdict: send him down.

Then we discovered that there was another side to the story. Diana Ingram knew Whittock through her brother, so the call could have been innocent; in any case, he claimed to have a dust allergy that made him cough almost uncontrollably. (It would have been like setting up a fiendish conspiracy based around blinking with someone who finds it hard to tolerate contact lenses.)

The hints of disquiet about the manipulative qualities of television present in the first half then bloomed fully with the revelation that the “cough tape” was supplied to the court by the TV company Celador – which gained a million pounds by not paying out the prize, remember. It had been heavily edited, with numerous other “irrelevant” coughs removed. Voting again at the end, a majority would have let Major Ingram walk free. (In real life, the jury were not so swayed; Charles and Diana Ingram and Tecwen Whittock were all found guilty.)

This is one of those productions where everything is just so. The ensemble cast switched neatly between roles; the set design was modern (recreating the bear pit of the Millionaire studio, itself meant to evoke a colosseum); the staging was fluid and surprisingly experimental; and director Daniel Evans extracted larger-than-life comedy performances that teetered on the right side of mugging. The courtroom framing also allowed for quick, shameless exposition dumps. Even better, the flashes of deeper meaning – a reference to the Iraq War’s truth-denying Comical Ali, or the Apprentice-driven presidency of Donald Trump, reality TV’s worst spin-off series – never felt forced.

Evans is artistic director at Chichester Festival Theatre, where this play had a short run last year; he and Graham have tightened and quickened it since then. Like Network at the National Theatre, it forces the audience to think about their own reaction to the play even as they’re watching it – just as the unlikely innovation of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was to let the contestants see the questions before deciding to play, tormenting them with doubt. As Graham pointed out in an interview, we should always mistrust ourselves: the case is known as the “coughing major” scandal, when the major wasn’t even the one doing the coughing.

Quiz runs until 16 June.

Noël Coward Theatre, London W1

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge