James McAvoy’s Macbeth is brutal, bloodthirsty, an unhinged despot. I like him a lot.
At the refurbished Trafalgar Studios in London, McAvoy rises to the challenge of portraying the power-crazed Scot, who runs Lear close for Shakespeare’s most demented monarch.
McAvoy is known for his role in “The Last King of Scotland” -- playing a doctor to a very different dictator with some equally gruesome tortures. This time, as his deeds come back to haunt him, he soon can’t even say his own name without vomiting over it. “Mac-bethhh!” he retches. He cowers over a dirty toilet bowl, which miraculously pops up on stage just before he pukes.
There’s plentiful use of rain, fog and blood sacs for maximum gore -- be warned, those of sensitive disposition. The evening ends with Macbeth’s disembodied head being paraded around and more ketchup than a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western.
While it sounds pretty awful, the gritty, inventive production by Jamie Lloyd rightly got an ovation on a press night attended by actors Hugh Bonneville, Jason Flemyng, Rafe Spall and Anne-Marie Duff, McAvoy’s wife.
We enjoyed some gloriously long, almost Pintereque, pauses between McAvoy and Claire Foy, as Lady Macbeth. To the Shakespearean script of her playful taunts (in essence, a real man would murder without worries, so get over it), they add wordless touches on the lips, embraces and a sexual tension.
Pretty soon Lady Macbeth is sleepwalking to madness. In one of the best scenes, the ghost of Banquo (a stony-faced Forbes Masson) prowls around and wrecks their cozy dinner party.
The three witches inexplicably put on various gas helmets and goggles. It also allows for a doubling of roles, though their words are less distinct through the masks and the Scottish accents could come with subtitles at times.
It’s also not clear why even the princes and nobles are wearing dirty anoraks, ripped jeans and torn sweaters. Perhaps it’s all a sign of corruption and apocalypse. They look more like the people sleeping at Charing Cross, across the road from the theater, rather than extras from London Fashion Week.
The royal palace is equally rundown on Southa Gilmour’s huge set. It needs a coat of paint, repairs to broken windows and has flickering lights that buzz and crackle to signpost meaningful quotes. There are plenty of them. “What’s done is done,” “out damned spot,” “brief candle,” “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
When all too often Shakespeare is rushed, with wordy speeches delivered as if the actor has a train to catch, Lloyd allows the actors to savor these lines.
The bard’s shortest tragedy is played over three hours. That’s a little too much for some of audience: for me, it was absolutely worth it.
In the new-style Trafalgar Studio 1, there are now 70 seats behind the stage. That’s distracting for many in the audience. Most action is played forward. Those at the back are only feet from the actors and sometimes right in the spotlight.
This is the first event in the “Trafalgar Transformed” series and no doubt the theater will get the seating right soon. This is nonetheless a fine start.
“Macbeth” is at Trafalgar Studios, 14 Whitehall, London, SW1A 2DY through April 27. Information: +44-844-871-7627 or http://www.atgtickets.com/shows/macbeth/trafalgar-studios/, http://www.macbethwestend.com/
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(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on U.S. theater, Elin McCoy on wine, Craig Seligman on books and interviews by Zinta Lundborg and Farah Nayeri.