3-Minute Reads // Domesticity at the end of the world in the National Theatre’s “Macbeth”, dir. Rufus Norris

“3-minute Reads” are mini-essays and close readings of a variety of texts. Subject choice is eclectic, and based entirely on whatever I happen to be reading or watching at the time. Enjoy! 


The post-apocalyptic aesthetic of Rufus Norris’ National Theatre Macbeth (2018) was unfairly maligned by several newspaper critics earlier this year. The set – a dirty urban sprawl of concrete, black plastic sheeting, and run-down hovels – was striking in its originality, but the fact it was “ugly to behold” and “oppressive” seems, for some reason, to have counted against the production in the eyes of some prominent reviewers. [1] I’m still perplexed as to why that might be (is an oppressive atmosphere in a tragedy such as Macbeth something we might want to discourage? Answers on a postcard, please). 

I like Norris’ concrete wasteland. It charges every scene with a sense of survivalist urgency; it enhances the play’s dog-eat-dog narrative even as it highlights the futility of petty power struggles; it gives even the minor characters a background and sense of motivation.

Most of all, though, it sets the scene for Macbeth, played by Rory Kinnear, to come home, waving the same bloody machete he has just used to unseam Macdonwald from the nave to th’ chops, and do this: 


It’s that simple (and, unlike that Thor gif. above, it isn’t played for laughs): Macbeth comes home, battered and bloody after a war. He enters the one-room hovel he shares with his wife (played by Anne-Marie Duff). And – despite the fact there are holes in the walls, debris on the floor, and the very brickwork of their shelter is crumbling away – he closes the door behind him and hangs up his machete on a coat hook. Then husband and wife embrace.

It’s a sublime moment of characterisation; a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gesture that tells us so much about Kinnear’s Macbeth and his relationship to the world around him. Here, surrounded by disorder, we catch a glimpse of order – and of a world that once was, and could be again – in an instance of quiet domestic normality. 

That this gesture feels so very normal (particularly in contrast to the shattered landscape of the outside world) speaks to the very heart of what makes Macbeth such a compelling tragedy. For all that Macbeth is a play about power struggles and murder, prophecy and war, it’s mostly about the collapse of family units. It therefore matters enormously how the central relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth is presented. Audiences need some idea of what’s normal, and what the stakes are. We need some idea of the love between the two. Most theatregoers – and, indeed, most of Shakespeare’s original audience – won’t have much of a clue what it means to be a thane, or a king, or to fight for the fate of a country. These are abstract ideas.

But we all know about family. Those are stakes we can recognise.

And for that reason, Kinnear’s seemingly insignificant gesture and the subsequent loving embrace are the most powerful moments of the play, because they reveal how much the Macbeths stand to lose. Hanging up the machete distinguishes the married home as a safe space, but the fact that it dangles behind husband and wife as they embrace and talk and plot represents the sad inevitability that violence will eventually overshadow their relationship.

Soon, the machete will be unhooked. Soon, the horrors of the outside world will find their way into the domestic space. Soon, order will break down, and so will a marriage.

Works cited

[1] Cavendish, Dominic, Review: “Macbeth at the National Theatre”. The Daily Telegraph. 7 March 2018 [online; last accessed June 2018].

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