• Leah Quinn

The horror of the Rufus Norris’s Macbeth and the modern war-zone

Updated: Jul 17, 2020

Directed by Rufus Norris, the National Theatre Live’s latest adaptation of Macbeth chimes eerily like a funeral toll and bumps in the night with our worst nightmares.

TW: rape

With Rory Kinnear (Othello) as Macbeth and Anne-Marie Duff (Suffragette) as Lady Macbeth, the play’s infamous power couple are drowning in humanity in a play where usually it is easy to see their tyranny as simply evil. Shakespeare’s tragedy, also known as ‘The Scottish Play’, is arguably one of his darkest and Rufus Norris’s adaption skulks creepily up to the mark. Moving Shakespeare’s play from eleventh century Scotland into a twenty-first century war-zone, the play resembles much of what Western audiences might think of when we consider modern civil wars in the Middle East or Africa. Rather than swash-buckling Shakespearean swords, the characters fight with machetes and, rather than kilts and capes for the men and dresses for the women, all characters don make-shift armour, sellotaped to their bodies, implying the sheer desperation and barrenness of the war-zone in which they are attempting to survive. Desperation seeps through almost every aspect of Norris’s adaptation, showing the audience the extent to which people are able to go when they are pushed to the absolute limits of survival.

The great expanse of black and the hidden in Norris’s set really stuck me as genius. In ‘Making Macbeth: An Introduction with Rufus Norris’, the director acknowledges the juxtaposition of both the great intimacy in the play where many scenes are acted with just two people on stage, and then the epic landscape that travels between Scotland and England. With so many locations to cover, the set had to be able to be both small and private, and huge and awesome. The use of the huge ramp which bends up and over the stage works not only as this geographical path between the landscapes and battlefields but also as a bridge between the living and the dead. Some of the play’s most terrifying moments happen on or under this ramp. From the witches running out across the top of it, as if entering the play from the sky during the storm, to them skulking around like demons beneath it with their eerie musicality, to the marching demons with their backwards baby-faces, to the beheading of Macbeth, to the sticking of dead babies onto spikes, the ramp stands as a constant against the dramatic changes in the play of who lives and who dies. Its constancy in the face of violence seems to me to reflect the world’s constancy in the face of humanity’s fickle violence. Since humanity began, we have fought and attacked and killed each other throughout history all while the world looks on and adapts to our miscalculations much like a disappointed parent.

Kinnear and Duff successfully exude the chemistry that is so necessary to playing the play’s infamous couple. So much of Macbeth’s actions and mistakes are the result of manipulation and pressure by his ambitious and powerful spouse.

“Art thou afeard to be the same in thine own act and valour, as thou art in desire?”

With one line, Lady Macbeth convinces her husband to commit regicide and grasp the fate that he has been told by the witches will be his. Typically, this line plays on ideas of masculinity, shaming Macbeth into action for, without action, he is not really a man. (Whatever that means.) In Norris’s adaptation, there is a heightened desperation in this line that moves it on from just being a simple put-down about Macbeth’s virility to something more about Macbeth’s place in this desperate civil war where, as his wife, Lady Macbeth can only do so much herself. Knowing this, her power and ultimately her downfall is her sexuality and her manipulation of the man who loves her.

Children are always significant in any adaptation of Macbeth whether in their existence or absence. Always in their deaths. Norris’s Macbeth is no different. From Act 4 Scene 2 and the murder of Lady Macduff and her children to the childlessness of Macbeth and his wife to the corpses of babies set upon spikes on the ramp, children in this play are in stark contrast to world they live in. It is interesting to think of modern conflicts and the children that must live and attempt to survive in war-zones. The suffering that real-life children go through whether it be locking them in cages on the North American/Mexican border or releasing chlorine gas over their homes in the Middle East, women and children most frequently are the victims of the machinations of men. While in Macbeth, it is not said whether or not Lady Macduff is raped before her death (although as she dies off stage, it may be implied), in many countries worldwide, women are used as bargaining chips and sexual objects in the conflicts of men. Take the Boko Haram girls of Nigeria for instance who are kidnapped, raped and married off to jihadi soldiers in the hundreds. In Norris’s Macbeth, it is hard not to see Lady Macduff and her children as representative of all those who suffer for the sake of their fathers, brothers and husbands in predominantly male wars.

It is rare for me to criticise any work done by the National Theatre and today is no different. Norris’s Macbeth is a dark and eerily modern nightmare that resembles our new, terrifying forms of conflict. We may not fight in kilts on horseback anymore but the central threads remain the same. Ambition kills, nightmares are real and the modern war-zone rages on.

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