London theater: 'Macbeth' at National Theatre: Murky, unintelligible, nonsensical

The cast of "Macbeth," through June 23, Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, London.

The performance I saw of Macbeth − now at the Olivier Theatre at the National Theatre in London, and soon to be in selected U.S. moviehouses, starting Thursday − was disappointing in so many ways. Granted, some arose because of a misfortune at the time, but most reveal that this production has real weaknesses in concept and execution.

Renowned actor Rory Kinnear was “indisposed,” and Nicholas Karimi went on in his place.

There was no chemistry between Karimi and Anne-Marie Duff as Lady Macbeth — they seem barely to know each other — so that whatever passion drives them to their heinous deeds is entirely political. Neither seemed to inhabit their roles, never becoming people we can respond to; we were just listening to famous lines being recited.

Thick Scottish accents rendered some of the dialogue unintelligible, and the speeches I always wait for fell flat. Why was “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” cut in half, so that Macbeth, not visibly shaken, much less grief-stricken, leaves his wife’s bloody body lying on the floor and continues with “Out, out brief candle” in another room?

The costumes (designed by Moritz Junge) made no sense to me. Everyone is wearing clothes that are ripped and dirty. The wardrobe culmination came when Macbeth’s armor is fastened with duct tape, wound around his waist and then bitten off.  People in the audience actually laughed.

The set (designed by Rae Smith) was visually confusing as well as ugly. Why would Macbeth’s castle be a small cinderblock shack? Why are there  old plastic kitchen chairs for the banquet?  

Why is the lighting (designed by James Farncombe) so dim — way beyond anything that could be called atmospheric — that just peering into the play becomes exhausting?

Rufus Norris, the director, has come up with a slew of strange notions (they don’t seem to be concepts, since they don’t seem to mean anything). For example, the entire play takes place outdoors and at night, so there is no contrast between the civilized world and the battlefield and the forest where the witches swing doll-babies from strings and climb poles, shrieking. (The witches get an awful lot of stage time.) The haunting scenes of madness are unnerving in cheap ways: Banquo’s heirs have their heads on backward and are wearing red jackets and black pants, the reverse of Macbeth’s outfit.

I could go on, but why bother?

Macbeth. Through June 23 at the Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, London. Starting Thursday, May 10, Macbeth also will be shown via broadcast in selected U.S. cinemas. Check the NT Live website or your local venue for more details.