Rufus Norris was sixteen when he first saw a production of Macbeth. That was a production by a company called Cherub Theatre, who toured it to Kidderminster College of Further Education, where Norris studied prior to going to RADA. It’s taken the artistic director of the National Theatre since 2015 a few decades to get round to doing his own production, which was first seen in the Olivier auditorium earlier this year. As a remounted version goes out on an extensive UK tour, the effect seeing Shakespeare’s bloodiest and darkest play had on Norris’ teenage self is something that has clearly stayed with him enough for him to want to captivate audiences of all ages in a similar fashion.
“When I first saw Macbeth it really grabbed me,” says Norris, “and I want to try and grab the thousands of students who are studying the play, and who rather than just read the text can see it for themselves. As arts subjects are being bled out of the education system, I think it’s important as well for the National Theatre as an institution to put something on that can fire the imagination of students.”
To this end, Norris has set his production of Macbeth in a historical no-man’s-land with some significant parallels to world events today.
“For me,” says Norris, “whenever I make a piece of work, it’s important to find some kind of resonance to the time we’re living in now. There’s a real political prescience to Macbeth that speaks very much about now regarding some of the actions of world leaders that are currently being played out. We don’t have to look too far from our own shores to be able to see that, but if you look at what’s going on in Syria as well, Damascus was a democratic city three years ago, but if you look at what’s happened since then in terms of conflict and war, and it’s not difficult to recognise something similar in Macbeth.”
One of the most striking features of Norris’ production is Rae Smith’s apocalyptic-looking set, which has been adapted to make it portable enough to tour.
“We’ve got two different versions,” says Norris. “The key difference from the original staging is that we’re touring to proscenium arch theatres. That gives us the space to look at things afresh, particularly in the case of the witches. There’s a sense that the witches are human, but are humans who’ve had to adapt to this very hostile landscape, and who can disappear from it vertically.”
Norris’ production of Macbeth may be his first look at a Shakespeare play for a quarter of a century, with him focusing mainly on new work as a director, but it’s influence on him runs deep from the assorted versions he’s seen since Cherub Theatre’s take on it.
“When I was at college we watched the video of Trevor Nunn’s production at The Other Place in Stratford with Ian McKellan and Judi Dench,” Norris says, recalling the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1976 production. “I love Kurosawa’s film, Throne of Blood, which turned Macbeth into an exploration of Japanese warrior mythology, and I saw Out of Joint’s production that was set in the Congo. In that setting, the metaphysical was accepted, and civil war was also accepted. Beyond that, I’ve probably seen another half dozen versions, including the recent film with Michael Fassbender playing Macbeth.”
Norris’ production remains very much his own vision, and with Michael Nardone and Kirsty Besterman picking up the mantles of the Macbeths left behind by Rory Kinnear and Anne Marie Duff from the London production to take it out on tour, the domestic relationship between the couple is crucial to Norris’ approach to the play.
“There’s a very two-dimensional way of looking at Macbeth,” he says, “which is to say that Macbeth is madness incarnate, and Lady Macbeth is the epitome of evil. That’s too simplistic, so you have to find a context to do the play that humanises things. Macbeth is a fantastic story about how a strong marriage can be put under pressure because of the decisions the couple make, and the drama comes from the human consequences of that.”
It is this all too human tragedy at the production’s heart that audiences will be able to grab hold of.
“What I hope,” says Norris, “is that the audience will get a very rich and very clear telling of the story, and I think it has to be for everybody. I’m not being pompous about that, but I think Shakespeare and theatre really has to be for everyone. In terms of this production, I think it’s very atmospheric. It is dark, and it has to be dark. It’s not a comedy. Most of all, I hope it will capture a real sense of the play’s humanity. That’s what matters to me.”
Macbeth opens at the Lowry, Salford, September 29th-October 6th and tours until March 2019.