First Night

Review: Macbeth starring James McAvoy, Trafalgar Studio 1, London

4.00

The X-Men actor impresses with a no-holds-barred performance set in a futuristic Scottish dystopia that won't please Alex Salmond

James McAvoy's Macbeth skids across the stage on his knees and chucks up violently with his head down the loo before he launches into the “If it were done, when 'tis done, then 'twere well/It were done quickly” soliloquy.

You could say that he is always the man of action even when laying bare – in incisive and pungently Scots-accented verse-speaking – the knotty nuances of his innermost fears and torments. And the actor makes that seem perfectly natural in a gripping, no-holds-barred performance that will impress fans of his work in the X-Men movies and unlock for youthful newcomers to Shakespeare some of the poetic and psychological riches of the play.   

Jamie Lloyd's production is set in the near future in a dystopian, separatist version of Scotland that is not calculated to gladden the heart of Alex Salmond. Our hero is initially a kind of Mad Mac figure in a world that, ravaged by bankruptcy and climate change, seems to have reverted to a bloody primitive tribalism. 

This show launches the new Trafalgar Transformed season for which the main Studio 1 space has been reconfigured by Soutra Gilmour. In-yer-face immediacy has never hitherto been the strength of this venue. But in addition to pushing the stage out over the first few rows, her spectacularly grungy in-the-round design for Macbeth places some seventy seats onstage (pac-a-mac ponchos recommended) and with all the frazzled lightning and crash-bang-wallop effects, it's as though you are being pulled into a nation's nervous system as it goes haywire. 

For my taste, the production is a wee bit over-the-top but there are sequences where it achieves an extraordinary thematic penetration. Macbeth is a protagonist who, in killing a king, commits a slow spiritual suicide. The idea that his world contracts into a kind of hellish solipsism is thrillingly conveyed here when, for their second encounter, the gas-masked witches pop up through trap-doors in his palace and McAvoy, desperately ladling their brew into himself, hawks up the voices of the apparitions from his own guts until the endless line of Banquo's heirs emerge through the various doors in proliferation of nightmare replicas of the weird sisters. It's as if the predictions have become an infernally literal self-fulfilling prophecy.

We are also offered a haunting portrait of a marriage. When he returns from from the war, Macbeth places his hand on his wife's stomach as if to feel for a heartbeat and Claire Foy's lean, stern Lady Macbeth signals a desolate hinterland of miscarriages in her brief stricken look askance. Simon Russell Beale once said that the hero's murder of Duncan is a gesture of love to his spouse to make amends for the death of their baby and, while not going so far, McAvoy and Foy powerfully suggest that their joint regicidal project is a hideously doomed and eroticised groping for compensatory intimacy by a childless couple.

The staging does not perhaps allow the leading actor to explore deeply enough the way that Macbeth becomes the burnt-out observer of his own growing inability to feel. But McAvoy's Thane shows a taste for black humour from the outset and an inclination to retreat into defensively sardonic laughter. Here, in the climactic face-off with Macduff (played by Jamie Ballard in an eventual ecstasy of principled Woad Rage), his beyond-it-all husky chuckling finely traces the stages by which Macbeth comes to the near-suicidal recognition that the cosmic joke is on him. 

It's a play that makes you chary of forecast but I'd say that this production bodes well for Jamie Lloyd's season at this address.

To 27 April; 0844 871 7627

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