Rufus Norris’ production of Macbeth gets off to a great start. The dark, grand scale set is suitably bleak and atmospheric. Three witches clamber to the top of poles almost the height of the proscenium arch. As they hang and slide with inhuman grace and their unnerving voices echo through the theatre, we begin to witness a high-brow production that’s well suited to a pre-halloween week run.

Unfortunately and despite such a strong initiation, this production just doesn’t quite work. It’s a National Theatre piece, although the cast has been refreshed since its time in London, something which doesn’t appear to have improved it as a whole. There’s no doubt this version of Macbeth features high-level production values – no expense is spared (at least compared to many theatre companies who can only dream of these kind of budgets). The cast and team involved is large and very experienced. So all the more reason this should be riveting stuff.

There are two main issues: the setting (not Rae Smith’s set, which is creative and impressive) and much of the acting. The backdrop is a kind of steampunk, post apocalyptic Scotland, where battles and scavenging unfold much like an episode of The Walking Dead. It’s anachronistic for a Shakespeare play, but then that’s long been the norm for modern versions. The problem is an out of context setting still needs to make sense in some way and this one seems to be constantly at odds with the dialogue and action. Instead, it presents as arbitrary and raises far more questions than answers, making the imagined world seem too incredulous.

Ross Waiton as MacDuff puts in a noticeably good performance and Reuben Johnson makes a mark as Banquo. However, much of the acting (especially Michael Nardone miscast in the title role) appears to lack motivation, chemistry between characters and genuineness. Many of the actors don’t enunciate nearly enough, and in a very wordy piece, we need to hear everything to keep track. While perhaps this production seeks to eschew an old-fashioned, poetic delivery of the Bard for a more modern way of speaking, the result is we miss a lot, disengage and it becomes tedious. This doesn’t bode well for young people and those who haven’t had a lifelong steeping in classical texts enabling them to pre-empt every word.

The caveat to all this is that overall the production is professional and perfectly slick. There are some effective moments and it is imaginatively staged. But given it comes with all the clout and cash of the National Theatre, plays in major theatres, can pick from an immense pool of actors desperate for a shot at something like this, and commands a decent ticket price, this Macbeth should be better than it is.

Photos courtesy of Brinkhoff Mogenburg.

Macbeth runs in Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre until 27th October 2018.