Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s fiercest tragedies. The familiar story of murder, deceit and suicide undergoes a thrilling remake for National Theatre’s (NT) touring production.  

“I feel Macbeth speaks very keenly to a lot of aspects of nowadays,” explains NT’s Artistic Director, Rufus Norris. “It’s a story of corrupted leadership, ambition and survival. You don’t have to look very far in the world to see how ambition can change leaders, and how taking various courses of action can lead to a corruption of them spiritually and literally. If you look to places like Syria or Libya, it’s not hard to see contemporary parallels to my vision of the play.”

Rufus believes it’s these parallels that allowed him to take Macbeth from the 11th century to a contemporary post-civil war setting: “Eleventh century Scotland was a time where Vikings were rampaging.

Trying to keep a kingdom together at that time would’ve been really difficult. I’ve seen various productions of Macbeth, where it’s set in the 1920s or the 16th century, and I don’t think they work because the play rapidly becomes about rich people killing other rich people. The influence of corrupt, ambitious leadership and the relationship between characters comes through, but I feel it misses that true 11th century element of ‘survival’.  To get by in that tumultuous environment, people would’ve had to take opportunities when they came, which sometimes may have provoked the kind of radical, murderous action we see in Macbeth. 

“Therefore, the contemporary setting was an obvious place to go for me. If all the lights went out, the internet stopped working, the banks stopped giving people their money and the rubbish was no longer collected, in a week, let alone a month, the streets would look very different. In 10 years’ time, when we would see those who’d survived and had adapted to living in this new world, the scene would probably play out much more like the 11th century Scotland of Macbeth than any other time since. It made sense to place Macbeth in a contemporary, post-civil war setting, which chimes with what we see on our news feeds and many of the play’s thematic roots.” 

The metaphysical is also a vital part of the play. In productions of Macbeth, creatives must think carefully about how the witches fit into their vision.

“The witches are a hugely important element of the play. There’s something very uneventful about other-worldly goings-on in the 11th century, and still a lot of pagan belief systems giving a context to that metaphysical world. In conflict situations, even nowadays, superstitions rise to the surface. People adopt different belief systems, or begin to put their faith in lucky charms and the like, to help themselves find a way through the horror. That’s how our setting honours the metaphysical.”

Rufus’ Macbeth wasn’t received all that well by the critics when it debuted at London’s Olivier Theatre: “I think there’s generally just a resistance to updating Shakespeare - and also, many people don’t really like looking with a depressing or pessimistic eye to the future. Our concept wasn’t just plucked from nowhere. I think the brilliance of Shakespeare is that it can easily be adapted. It’s a slightly abbreviated text in our case, but I’ve never seen a Shakespeare play that wasn’t in some way. We cut one or two sequences, which the die-hard Shakespeare fans were critical of, but I was genuinely surprised by the reaction from some critics, and obviously very disappointed. However, the auditorium has always been full and the audience’s response to it has been very positive. I’m just very relieved that word-of-mouth pushed back against the tide of those initial negative responses.”

Despite the lack of correlation between critic and audience reaction, Rufus still believes theatre criticism to be of immense value.

“I think critics are important, particularly for productions with less well-known titles and without any serious stars. Those reviews are essential because fewer people would buy a ticket without having already been told it’s good. I have sympathy for the old-school critics in broadsheet newspapers because they have incredible knowledge of theatre, and it’s very difficult for them at the moment because a lot of the arts sections are being cut back. However, I’m also all for the diversification of criticism through the world of blogging and social media, as it’s much closer to the informed word-of-mouth you get from audience members.”

Moving away from talking about Macbeth, what does Rufus feel is the National Theatre’s primary remit?
“We have to live up to our name. Obviously, we have to make theatre that’s good, but beyond that, we have to continue to earn that title of ‘national’. For me, part of the Brexit vote was a very deep protest against inequality of opportunity and the break-up of communities all over Britain. It’s part of our duty and privilege to make sure we prioritise encouraging and supporting arts centres, theatres and all creative infrastructure around the country, because theatre does bring everyone together. It’s also important to maintain equality of opportunity across the UK. It’s a no-brainer to take this production around the country, and in certain key places, like Wolverhampton, to make our communication and collaboration deeper, to address how important the creative industries are to our nation.”

Encouraging engagement with the arts in education is also something about which Rufus is passionate: “The degradation of arts in education is a huge issue. There’s a relentless drive by authorities towards maths and the sciences, or to see literature as the only valuable art. I do feel very strongly that drama texts are being studied in schools in a way that focuses solely on them being words on a page, rather than what they’re supposed to be - a performance.”

Macbeth shows at the Wolverhampton Grand Theatre from Tuesday 12 to Saturday 16 March.

Interview by Lauren Cole