MACBETH – October 30 – November 3, 2018
The National Theatre’s artistic director Rufus Norris has not directed a Shakespearean production in 25 years and has chosen to return to the Bard’s work with one of his most popular and frequently studied plays – Macbeth.
After a highly successful run at the National’s Olivier Theatre, it is now set to go out on a national tour, arriving at Norwich Theatre Royal from October 30 to November 3.
There have been many adaptations since Macbeth was written in 1606, the year after the Gunpowder Plot, and like Hamlet, its themes reflect the uncertainties of those times.
Rufus Norris has brought the play out of the dark and bloody Scottish Middle Ages and set it in a post-apocalyptic and equally blood-soaked modern-day world, with a set by designer Rae Smith which conjures up a war-beaten landscape where society has totally broken down and survival depends on building alliances and brutally repressing opposition. In the ruined aftermath of this bloody civil war, the Macbeths are propelled towards the crown by forces of elemental darkness.
He tells Judy Foster about the play’s enduring appeal, how the National Theatre is working with regional arts providers to engage local audiences and why he doesn’t fear for the future of the industry.
Judy: ‘Could you tell us about your vision for bringing the National Theatre out of London and to the regions?’
Rufus: ‘Well we are called the National Theatre and it is not enough to take that title and produce work in London and the West End, and take it off to Broadway when it works. If we are to be called the National Theatre we have to be national and that works in many different ways.
One of the things that I have tried to do since I have been there is increase the number of co-productions we have been doing at other theatres around the country; to increase the amount of touring that we are doing. We have always toured and in fact the touring figures for the past seven or eight years have been pretty healthy. I’ve been very keen to diversify that, to not just take out shows like War Horse and Curious Incident, those shows which are fantastic but have the reputation of the West End, but also to look at some of the medium scale and smaller scale touring and diversify that; and to increase our schools tours as well as NT Live and the various other ways that we’ve got for skills exchange. There’s an increasing number of ways in which we can be engaged.
I feel with theatre-making and theatres and arts centres around the rest of the country, it has to be two-way. It’s a conversation. It’s not about us going ‘this is what we do’ and ‘we’re just going to dispense this marvellous work’. It is also understanding what the culture is like in different places. How the creative industries or the arts work in Norwich is many, many miles away from how it is in Sunderland or how it is in Manchester or in Barnstaple – and I think it is beholden on us to have those conversations and to understand the reality of that, because we singularly have the opportunity to advocate to try and get the government’s ear on certain things’.
Why do you think Shakespeare, and Macbeth in particular, still has such an enduring appeal to audiences?
I think Macbeth has all kinds of aspects to it which make it so compelling. It may even be his most popular title. I think Hamlet is probably his most famous, but Macbeth gets done again and again and again. I think there are several reasons for that. It’s got lots of action in it, so it’s an action play in a way. It’s also got a metaphysical element to it with the witches, so there is something very compelling and frightening about that. There’s a very deep belief system in our roots in this country that predates Christianity and which is expressed through the witches and their connection with nature. It’s also got the incredibly rich and deep humanity that Shakespeare puts through all of his plays. Really the play starts with a relationship, with one of the strongest marriages in the Shakespearean canon and that gradually comes apart because of the actions that they take. Certainly, it’s partly self-inflicted, but it is also about the pressure of leadership and the chaotic times that they are living in. That analysis of a relationship coming apart under pressure I think is incredibly engaging, so on all sorts of levels people have found it a story on which to look at their own lives or get great entertainment from, and to learn the lessons of not going round killing people.
In a sense, Macbeth is a tale of ambition and survival and political machinations and we don’t have to look very far to see examples of that. I think particularly as people become more and more informed through the internet and the availability of information, we’re in quite a politicised age. You can look at what Donald Trump is doing or what Boris Johnson is doing, or how Teresa May is trying to keep a grip together. Whichever side of the fence you come from, it is possible to look at those big stories of political intrigue and dynamic, decision-making and leadership like Macbeth, and see how it relates to our modern life.
You’ve described Macbeth as a love story – what did you mean by that?
When the play begins, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are deeply in love with each other. From what we can tell they’ve had quite a tough relationship. They’ve certainly lost one child, possibly more than that, and the theme of childlessness runs through the play in all sorts of ways. When Macduff finally hears of the murders that have been committed on his wife and children, his response to Malcolm’s pleas to vent his anger is ‘he has no children’, and in a way that’s one of the things that defines Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. They cling to each other through love, through an inter-dependence, into making this decision that they are going to do this terrible act to try and gain security for the rest of their lives in a way to prevent them from being driven apart by war and service which is what the recent years of their marriage have been about. And the play is an incredibly detailed look at how that love comes apart, how a relationship falls apart. They stop communicating with each other. Macbeth stops confiding in Lady Macbeth, starts patronising her, and starts treating her like ‘don’t worry your pretty little head about it’. He calls her ‘dearest chuck’ at one point whilst not telling her what she is asking. And in a hundred steps you see the relationship crumble, so it’s the death of a love story in a way.
It is complex, but it is also really, really understandable. Some of Shakespeare’s plays get involved in politics or familial intrigue which is quite difficult to follow if you don’t understand the references of the time, and some of them are plotted less successfully than others. Macbeth is straight down the line, and everybody can stay with it all the way. I think it is one of his clearest and most compelling stories, which is again why I think it is so popular. It is also one of his shortest which in this day and age when audiences are very bright and very quick to understand a story, that is a bonus as well.
It’s on the National Curriculum so it’s a superb opportunity for students to come and see it. How do you think it benefits their studies to see this leap from page to stage?
The answer to that is quite simple. These were not written to be studied. They were written to be watched – or to be performed. That doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be studied and I am sure there are many, many thousands of excellent teachers around the country who are analysing the text, getting the students to speak the text to each other very well. But they are made for the stage and they come alive in the mouths of good actors and, if you get the opportunity to see a Shakespeare well-performed, it will certainly illuminate your understanding of it. Also I’m very pragmatic. If students are asked to write about it, and they’ve experienced something which gives them another level of insight into that, that will certainly help. I think if students are studying plays it should almost be on the curricula that they get the opportunity to see those plays performed live. We are blessed in this country to have the greatest writer of any language, certainly of the English language, and it’s great that students study it. It’s not great that the opportunities for them to see it are so few and far between.
What can audiences expect from your version and how do you think your version differs from those that have gone before?
I haven’t seen all the versions that have gone before. I’ve seen a few of them. This version will be dynamic. It will be very atmospheric. It will be very clear. It will be quite dark and spooky. It’s not a comedy. This is a very serious and fast moving drama and I hope, I fully intend, that it’s told in a way that feels resonant to the age that we’re living in.
How will the touring production differ to what you’ve done in London?
When we first staged the work, we did it in the Olivier Theatre – it’s essential a Greek theatre with a stage that thrusts out. It’s very big with a big floor, so inevitably in moving it into a touring environment, we are going to be playing it in proscenium arch theatres, so that means taking the design and adapting it quite heavily to suit the theatres that we’re travelling to. We’re also travelling to theatres of quite significant size differences, so we are making it in a way we can make it fit bespoke to every venue we are going to. Those are just the pragmatic things. For me, what’s exciting is revisiting a show that I’ve made and to see in what way we can improve it. There are some things that we started to explore in the first production which we can take further this time, particularly in terms of the witches and their relationship with the environment in which it’s set. The fact that it’s playing in proscenium arches means that we can light it in a completely different way. I was talking to the sound designer recently and we are going to be enhancing the sound design significantly as well. So I think in many ways touring it gives us the opportunity to improve on what we’ve done before.
One of the challenges facing many theatres today is that we have an ageing theatre audience. How can the industry and the National Theatre help encourage young people away from their electronic devices and to come and engage in live theatre?
What a fascinating question and, of course, this question of broadening our audiences is absolutely at the centre of what we do. I think it is partly about making sure that the work that goes on the stages is work that they want to see, and there are many different ways of doing that. Sometimes it’s to do with casting. Usually it’s to do with the subject matter. Often it’s to do with involving them in it. So I think to try and make the theatre a community centre that they want to be part of is a key thing. I think it’s very important that we look at our education and how we are introducing creativity and drama into their lives at a young age. Whatever theatres can do to get involved with that, particularly at a time where a lot of that creativity is being taken out of their curriculum at school, it’s beholden on us and art centres generally to try and react to that and become involved in what young people consider to be part of their lives.
We all will tend to our phones in a moment of boredom or when we are feeling embarrassed and they are very, very addictive. But I don’t worry about the future of theatre in the long term at all. I think people like to be together. If you go to the beach down the road here if it’s a sunny Sunday, then even if there are miles and miles of fantastic coastline here, a lot of the people will be congregating in the same place because they like to be together, and theatres are community centres where people like to come together. So in every way it is about trying to make theatres, the sort of community that they want to be part of. I’m speaking in a generalised way. There are a million specific answers to that question. The challenge that I have is that you know your audience much better that I do, and so how you can deal with that in a local context will be the route to the answer to that. Most people go to places where they feel like they will be a part of what is going on, where they feel like they will be part of the family, so do everything to make that the case.
Also, people have been saying that theatre audiences are ageing for as long as I have been alive and I think it is largely because you get to a certain age where certain things are more important to you than other things. You grow into it. It doesn’t make it invalid because you prefer doing different things when you are 50 to the ones that you wanted to do when you were 20. When I used to go to the theatre when I was 18, people thought I was weird. There’s a sort of natural cycle as well. We like to contemplate more and you can see resonance in things. Young people looking at Macbeth are not going to get the relationship. I’m in a marriage that is under a certain amount of pressure because of the leadership position I am in, so I’m very interested in it. But my kids aren’t.
We’ve managed to bring the average age down at our theatre in the last few years and then it’s crept up a bit, and gone down a bit, and I think we are where we can get to.
The National Theatre’s Macbeth is at Norwich Theatre Royal from October 30 to November 3 at 7.30pm nightly (2.30pm matinees on November 1 & 3). Tickets from £10-£33. Discounts for Friends & Corporate Club, Over 60s, Under 18s, Schools and Groups. Captioned Performance November 1, 2.30pm. Audio Described Performance November 3, 2.30pm. See www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk for more information or to book tickets.