Michael Nardone and Kirsty Besterman were given the keys to the kingdom when they were cast as Lord and Lady Macbeth in Rufus Norris’ National Theatre production of Shakespeare’s Scottish play. Picking up the mantles of Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff, who played the murderously ambitious couple for the London run of Norris’ apocalyptic-looking production proved irresistible to both actors, who came to it with strong track records of doing classic plays onstage. In what sounds like a radical reinvention of Shakespeare’s play, the production’s dark mix of the personal and the political nevertheless cast a spell on them in a way where the flesh and blood everyday passions of the couple are brought home.
“I wanted to try and give Macbeth a real edge as an honest kind of man,” says Fife-born Nardone, who will be appearing on a Scottish stage for the first time in several years. “His relationship with the king is really important, and at the beginning of the play he knows his position and understands the virtue of loyalty. Then, as everyone in the world who’s ever existed does, he becomes tempted by something else, and he and his wife try to do it together, but they mess it up.”
As Nardone sees it, “The emotional relationship between Macbeth and his wife is crucial. They’ve been through this tragedy of losing their children, and they try to fulfil this vision. We can see today on TV all the time what happens to people who get a taste for that sort of thing, and for me the tragedy of Macbeth is that a perfectly good relationship is destroyed.
He’s reliant on her, and he’s the muscle, but she’s the brains. It’s all quite sad to see what happens.”
For Besterman too, the relationship between the Macbeths is the play’s driving force.
“I’ve always wanted to play Lady Macbeth with them having a strong marriage at the start,” she says. “They’ve had this terrible loss of their children, and they have this language between them. I don’t think Lady Macbeth is as mad as she’s sometimes played, certainly not at the start of the play when Macbeth has come back from the war and there’s this real passion between them, and they want to feel like that all the time.
“It’s obviously an epic story about murder, but there’s something there as well about this couple having an idea, being impulsive and not thinking it through, then finding themselves in a situation where they can’t cope with what they’ve done. He can’t cope with power, and instead of this incredibly loving and passionate thing they had they end up with this broken-down relationship that destroys them.”
Beyond the Macbeths’ domestic turmoil, there is a much bigger picture at play in an onstage world that seems to be tearing itself apart.
“The concept is quite specific,” Besterman explains. “It’s futuristic. It’s civil war. I love the darkness of it. There’s passion and loss and sadness, and the way Michael plays Macbeth, he does it so, yes, he’s a monster, but he’s still vulnerable, and that comes from what’s going on in the world around him.”
For Nardone, Macbeth’s ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow’ soliloquy has a far greater resonance than a reflection on his personal downfall.
“He’s not so much questioning the meaning of his own life,” Nardone says, “but of the whole meaning of existence and all the things you put up with. I think of that myself when I look around me and see people living in poverty and pain, and it makes you wonder why.”
Besterman and Nardone are no strangers to Scotland’s stages. Besterman appeared in productions of Noel Coward’s play, Private Lives, and Laura Wade’s stage adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel, Tipping The Velvet, at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh. Besterman was last in Edinburgh earlier this year at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre in Out of Joint’s production of Roland Schimmelpfennig’s play, Winter Solstice.
Elsewhere, in terms of Shakespearian roles, Besterman played Portia in The Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare’s Globe, Cordelia in King Lear with the Royal Shakespeare Company and Bianca in Cheek by Jowl’s production of Othello.
“I suppose it’s quite a diversion for me,” she says of playing Lady Macbeth. “I’ve done a lot of Noel Coward and camp roles, and now here I am stomping about in Doc Martens and vests.”
Nardone first came to prominence in the original production of David Harrower’s modern classic, Knives in Hens, at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh. He also appeared in the world premiere of Gregory Burke’s debut play, Gagarin Way at the Traverse and the National Theatre, and worked with Burke again on the National Theatre of Scotland production of Black Watch.
Macbeth will be Nardone’s first major stage role since he appeared with with the National Theatre in 2014 as the Duke of Cornwall in Sam Mendes’ production of King Lear starring Simon Russell Beale in the title role. Nardone previously worked with Norris at the Young Vic in the title role of Tanya Ronder’s adaptation of Lope de Vega’s seventeenth century Spanish play, Peribanez. Having focused on TV and film over the last few years with regular roles in the likes of River City and HBO series, Rome, Macbeth was too good an offer to turn down.
“I couldn’t really say no,” Nardone says. “I’m 51 now, and in a couple of years’ time I probably wouldn’t be able to do it., but for me, the vision of this production to me is very acute, because you can see in it the result of what happens in a divided society. One little bit of unrest, and everything falls apart and descends into chaos. That’s something that currently doesn’t feel very far away. I’m old enough to remember the three-day week and saw everything that happened in the 1970s, and there’s a clarity to this production that makes Macbeth a story for our times.”
Macbeth, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, October 20-27; His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, November 7-10; Theatre Royal, Glasgow, February 19-23 2019.
The Herald, October 23rd 2018