Studio 1 at Trafalgar Studios has been 'transformed'. So announces the programme in bold red letters. Some extra bold red seats have been added at the back of the stage, so that some of the audience have the privilege of rubbing shoulders (almost) with the actors. And the acting area has been extended outwards too so that we all feel a little closer to the action. In fact, some of the audience sitting on-stage, suddenly felt like they might be sitting a little too close. When a torrent of blood came tumbling from on high, it inadvertently splashed several people sitting in the first row or two. One woman in particular caused some mirth among the rest of us as she tried to scrape the detritus from her once-sparkling footwear. Still, this is is what live theatre is all about and if you want to be part of it, you have to accept the odd splash of blood from time to time... apparently.
In this version of 'Macbeth' directed by Jamie Lloyd we visit a depressed, dingy and almost totally derelict Scotland. It feels like it could be present day, or maybe some time in the not-too-distant future. Perhaps Mr Lloyd is pointing to what might happen if Scotland leaves the United Kingdom and takes the path of independence. Another possibility is the effect of global warming, or some catastrophic economic disaster. Whatever the possible cause, Scotland is in a parlous state and the population are obviously suffering considerable hardship. Even the children and mums wear gumboots and green military-style dress. And personal hygiene appears to have taken a back seat long ago, and the clothes people wear are heavily soiled and stained. So, there are few signs of comfort in this vision of Scotland, even though there are still cans of beer for soldiers to celebrate with.
There is also a kind of industrial feel to Soutra Gilmour's intentionally bleak setting. Above the acting area is a kind of walkway which has a glass frontage to it, but most of the panes of glass are broken. And the main acting area is more like a decrepit industrial warehouse rather than a palace or fortified castle. The weaponry on display is an odd assortment of the primitive and the modern. The guns look up-to-date but Macbeth likes strutting around with an axe and a machete, and there are plenty of knives in use too. So, this is almost a production which features 'weaponry through the ages'. The obvious intent is to widen the context to other conflicts in the past, the present or even the future.
In James McAvoy's impressively defined Macbeth we find a hardened soldier, fuelled by an amalgam of nervous energy and fear – the kind one assumes all soldiers experience in battle and long after. An obvious leader and a brutal killer, he is also a raw and edgy character who is sometimes rendered temporarily speechless as if the electrical signals in his brain have become scrambled. In contrast, Claire Foy's excellent Lady Macbeth may seem lucid enough as she persuades her spouse that the throne is his for the taking, but she also hints that Mrs Macbeth is already emotionally unstable even when we first meet her and that her decline, like her husband's, is inevitable.
The concept of a dystopian Scotland, ravaged by a prolonged period of war and economic deprivation is not exactly new in productions of the Scottish play, but it is meticulously and developed here by Jamie Lloyd. That strong conceptual vision is substantiated with energetic and highly convincing performances all-round, and the result was, quite rightly, very well-received by an appreciative and attentive audience.
Note: This Review is from a preview performance.
"Lloyd’s production, set in a post-apocalyptic Scotland which has been laid waste by war and climate change, packs a powerful punch...James McAvoy, best known as a film actor, proves a commanding Macbeth...This is a gripping and genuinely startling production - and would be more effective still with a speedier running time. "
Charles Spencer for Daily Telegraph
" [James McAvoy] a gripping, no-holds-barred performance...For my taste, the production is a wee bit over-the-top but there are sequences where it achieves an extraordinary thematic penetration. "
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"I’ve seen the role [Macbeth] played with more poetic subtlety but never with more energy."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"Although it's a good occasion, there's a relentlessly visceral quality to Lloyd's production that eventually becomes a bit wearing."
Michael Billington for The Guardian