Macbeth – a play for our time

WHEN Rufus Norris considers a new production, he asks himself two questions, Why me (why should I do it)? and Why now? And the snwers to those questions guide him to the third and critical question, How?

The artistic director of the National Theatre was talking to local press and media at Bath Theatre Royal, ahead of the national tour of his Macbeth, which received decidedly mixed (almost uniformly bad) reviews.

Listening to his description, not only of his thought-processes, but also of the answers to his questions, was fascinating, and definitely left us eagerly anticipating the production. Macbeth is coming to Bath from 27th November to 8th December, as part of an 18-venue tour, which also includes West Country stops at Plymouth Theatre Royal, 16th to 20th October, Southampton Mayflower Theatre, 26th February to 2nd March, and Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff from 19th to 23rd March.

Macbeth is a constant on school and university syllabuses, and Norris recalled studying the play, which he found powerful and compelling and seeing a touring production of it which piqued his interest in the idea of directing.

The themes he identifies within the play include the pressures of leadership, how these pressures effect a very strong marriage, and the socio-political resonances – “We understand more now about leadership and the corruption of leadership, because of the spread of information, the internet and globalisation,” he said.

Ambition and political skullduggery – issues that resonate today – are important and the context of the story, which Shakespeare took from Hollinshed’s Chronicles, has powerful contemporary relevance, with civil war, the social order under stress, and damage to the environment.

Norris sees the role of the National Theatre as crucially to involve young people and as diverse an audience as possible, and to take theatre out across the country. He is passionate about the importance of the arts in education, and openly critical of the way successive governments have “denigrated” the role of the arts in school.

Exploring ways to direct Macbeth for a new generation, he considered the conflicts and wars which were familiar to young people – Syria, the Balkans and the refugee crisis. The ecological consequences of contemporary warfare and social breakdown are all too evident: “If the power and the internet were down, Bath would be a completely different place within a week,” he said.

Macbeth is famous, not only for the bloody murders but also for the witches, and Norris sees the metaphysical aspects of the play as very important, and an illustration of the way that superstition comes to the fore in times of civil war and conflict – today’s “fake news” is obviously a parallel.

There are cuts to the Shakespeare text – most productions of Shakespeare’s plays make cuts, he pointed out – particularly to the long scene in England (the scene in which many people nod off, he joked).

Looking at specific details, Norris described how they designed the armour – in the chaos of a post-war society, trade and industry are non-existent, and people have to adapt and make their own objects, so the armour is made from cardboard (this was inspired by the experience of an actor who had served a prison term, who described how Yellow Pages or magazines were used as body protection).

The production, which starred Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff, has had to be reconfigured from the vast space of the Olivier stage for the proscenium arch theatres on the tour, and the cast has not yet been announced. To book visit www. theatreroyal.org.uk

Pictured: Rufus Norris in rehearsal for Macbeth; photograph by Brinkhoff Mögenburg