Lady Macduff’s death in Jamie Lloyd’s visceral new production of Macbeth, which opens his ‘Trafalgar Transformed’ season, is shockingly brutal and gruellingly long. Her legs spasm and her arms jerk as she is held down and garrotted by Macbeth’s men. Any hope that the child hidden in the cabinet beneath her will survive the slaughter is dashed when Macbeth thrusts a sword into it. The cries linger.
Lloyd’s modern-dress version ditches whispered intrigue in favour of a full-frontal assault on the senses. Purists will undoubtedly grumble about the lack of nuance, but what we get here is a post-apocalyptic society on the edge, in which subtlety is a luxury no one can afford. It’s a gripping, gory vision that channels Shakespeare through Game of Thrones and matches bloodied fists with a genuine sense of pain and loss.
Designer Soutra Gilmour’s reconfigured stage breaks up the static lines of Trafalgar’s main space to bring the audience thrillingly closer to the blood-spattered action, which takes place in a vividly conceived, harshly utilitarian landscape of battered chairs, slop-filled pans and broken toilets. It’s clear that nature has been in revolt long before James McAvoy’s Macbeth appears, loaded with weapons and heralded by tales of titles won through slaughter.
McAvoy’s Scottish lord is a bristling bully-boy, ricocheting around the stage with gripping, dangerous energy. From the start, his Macbeth is a product of the power-grabbing world he hacks his way to the top of – appearing before a startled Duncan (Hugh Ross) pretending to be a hooded, sobbing prisoner-of-war before erupting into hoarse laughter. It’s a filthy, nasty, brilliant performance.
He and Claire Foy as Lady Macbeth are a lustful, power-hungry pairing whose plotting is driven by pain. Foy’s raging about dashing a baby from her breast in pursuit of Duncan’s throne throbs with the implication that her character has suffered the loss of a child. Raw, angry and desperate, Foy’s is not a conniving temptress; she needs Macbeth to give her purpose.
The production’s Grand Guignol-esque set-pieces – including a particularly gruesome prop that makes a climactic appearance – are audacious but become numbing when used indiscriminately, drowning their effectiveness in a welter of blood. Best is a jolting double-bluff that restores the shock value to Banquo’s ghostly appearance in the banqueting scene.
But what makes Lloyd’s take on the play more than just noise and fury is the bloodied heart pulsing in the background. Jamie Ballard is devastatingly good as a grief-stricken Macduff, dragging out every disbelieving question at the news of his family’s slaughter into an agony of despair. These quieter moments, like Macbeth silently touching his wife’s stomach, provide a different kind of heft to an arm swinging a blade into someone’s guts.
Sometimes the production succumbs to a flashiness that adds little to the story. And the Witches suffer from an overly conceptualised design which, while providing an impressive visual, undermines their lines by muffling them inside gas masks. But beggars carrying battered ‘welcome to Eden’ signs neatly ironise the notion that things are any better off south of the border.
Occasionally Lloyd’s high-octane production tries to do too much. But its ruined, polluted kingdoms plant Shakespeare in a landscape redolent of dystopian TV and film, successfully opening up the play without distracting from it. And watching it is like getting an adrenalin shot. Pushed forward by a blistering McAvoy, this bruiser of a Macbeth packs a punch that will knock you into next week.