Stark, dark modern setting for Shakespeare's tragedy

The National Theatre production of Macbeth
The National Theatre production of Macbeth

The National Theatre’s new touring production of Macbeth is set in a modern country torn apart by civil war.

The production started life at the famous Oliver Theatre in London, starring Rory Kinnear as Macbeth and Ann-Marie Duff as Lady Macbeth.

The new touring cast is led by Michael Nardone from BBC One’s The Night Manager and Kirsty Besterman.

Patrick Robinson from Casualty and Strictly appears as Banquo and Emmerdale’s Tom Mannion is Duncan.

National Theatre artistic director Rufus Norris,who is also directing the play, believes Macbeth is important for today’s audiences to see.

“I think that it’s relevant, it has a resonance for now and the immensity of it is much deeper than just a black and white portrayal of black and white evil people.”

Instead, Shakespeare explores what emotions and desires are pushing the Macbeths towards murdering their leader in their grab for power.

Rufus has set the play in the aftermath of a bloody civil war that has destroyed everything, like in today’s Syria or the Balkans conflict.

He said: “All of us would behave in another way if our survival was on the line.”

The set is dominated by a bridge sliproad covered in pieces of plastic rubbish.

Rufus said: “I grew up abroad and travelled a lot. There’s a slum on a huge area of Mumbai Airport where a whole community entirely makes money from recycling. Six-year-old kids are collecting plastic and old metal and half of them die by the age of 15.”

He wanted the set to reflect that world.

In the play, Macbeth is propelled to take action by a key decision of king Duncan, said Rufus.

“Just after Macbeth and Banquo have liberated the country, big things are coming true. Duncan says, ‘gather round, I’m going to give the kingdom to my son, Malcolm’. All we know about him is that he got captured in a fight.

“In a period just after civil war to have a weak leader, somebody has to step up. Macbeth is the person who does it. They’re not living in normal times, you’re looking at five to 10 years of warfare.”

He said of the Macbeths: “They’re deeply committed to each and trust each other more than anyone else they’re working with.

“The first he does after an exchange with the witches (when they predict Macbeth will be king) is to write to his wife and tell her everything.”

So, when Macbeth starts to back off from their plan, she knows exactly what to say to wind him up again.

The original production was not to the London critics’ liking, Rufus concedes: “We got rather a licking but I don’t see that from 90 per cent of the responses from the audiences. People said, ‘I don’t know what they were talking about’.

“To do Macbeth is to take your life in your hands.”

Rufus believes that if the National Theatre is to live up to its name, it has to move beyond its base on the South Bank.

As well as screening London productions in cinemas, the theatre company is touring more and more.

He said: “It’s a privilege, not a responsibility. You got to be national, particularly if you look at this moment in time with the EU referendum.”

The National Theatre has also looked at current attitudes nationally by sending researchers out to 10 or so parts of the country.

“They were just briefed to go and listen and interview people of all classes, heritage, age and gender, to talk to them and ask them about their community and talk to them about where they live and immigration, what it is to be British, how their value system relates to that.”

He said the theatre is determined to reflect the full diversity of British people.

Macbeth is at the Lyceum in Sheffield from November 21 to 24. Tickets: www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk