The woman behind me sat up at the interval and said to her friend, “I fell asleep, I’m going home”. She wasn’t the only one. This National Theatre touring performance of one of Shakespeare’s goriest and greatest tragedies was sinking beneath yawns. How does the line go? “Macbeth doth murder sleep”? More like “Sleep doth murder Macbeth” in this case.

The audience was anarchic at first – like how you imagine audiences were in Shakespeare’s day – and although we weren’t expecting cabbages to emerge from underneath coats, there were giggles of ridicule across the jam-packed Lowry Theatre at unquestionably un-pantomimic moments, such as the numerous murders and beheadings.

Maybe this unnerved the leads, Michael Nardone as Macbeth, and Kirsty Besterman as Lady Macbeth, because they grasped the dagger they saw before them with only half a heart, diluting the poetic beauties of Shakespeare’s immortal script with acting less powerful than you’ll see by CGI-actors on your average computer game.

They could have had the audience in the palms of their fake-blood-soaked hands, with stage and scene set well (thanks to designer Rae Smith) by strikingly bleak and atmospheric scenery and the Gollum-esque tree-climbing antics of the three ‘weird sister’ witches. But Nardone and Besterman added no personal chemistry to the witches’ potion, and the emotional plot was gradually lost.

The original dastardly duo for the London run was Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff, who by all accounts rescued the play from the weaknesses of director Rufus Norris’s production, set in the vague ‘now, after a civil war’, with its khaki-and-combats chic and choice of gratuitous simulated beheading over subtlety.

No such rescue here. Besterman played Lady Macbeth in the sweet, endearing way ‘Mummy Durrell’ Keeley Hawes (co-star of the BBC’s mystifyingly popular Bodyguard) might – i.e., with absolutely no weight, depth or pathos. And Nardone’s twitchy rendition of insane torment looked at times like the sorry search of a man for a toilet.

Not that all the actors should be critically killed off “in one fell swoop” (as Macduff would have it). Exceptions included Duncan (Tom Mannion), Banquo (Patrick Robinson), Macduff (Ross Waiton) and the Porter (Deka Walmsley) – a down-stage character who, in this performance, upstaged everyone with his heartfelt drunken ramblings. Ironically, the Porter is the only character who’s supposed to bring comic lightness to this pitch-dark play, yet there were no audience sniggers here, only admiring silence.

But tension throughout was almost non-existent, and the pace seriously faltering by the final scene. Ending with another comically explicit decapitation – this time Macbeth’s severed head being “popped in the Asda bag”, as another woman behind me quipped – this dirgy Macbeth felt more like tedious farce than tragedy.

By Matthew Connolly

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