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Royal Shakespeare Company production of Macbeth – Barbican Arts Centre:
Macbeth is a startlingly gruesome play. It begins with the ending of a war but the slaying of the great and the good, adults, families and children alike, continues throughout. By the bloody end of the play, both the actors and the audience are exhausted by the sheer brutality of the narrative. Yet it is also a deeply psychological play, revealing the unravelling of minds twisted by ambition, envy, greed, revenge and murderous rage. This production, directed by Polly Findlay, also manages to find and inject humour into a tale that might otherwise be overwhelmingly dark.
The opening scene set the tone for an unusual staging. An aged Duncan lies in what appears to be a hospital bed, perhaps a hint of his imminent demise. Lady Macbeth sits on a waiting room type chair at the back of the stage while a water cooler and a wheelchair are glimpsed in the background. The bloodied soldier who breaks the news of victory on the battlefield is escorted to the surgeons to attend to him while Duncan is helped into a wheelchair where he is invigorated by tales of battle.
The witches are played by young girls, eerily dressed in outfits that reminded me of The Handmaid’s Tale. They recite their prophecies as if they were childhood rhymes. Are the children meant to represent the future as much as their prophetic messages do? They speak and behave like automatons with a disturbing laugh which makes them feel threatening despite the innocence of their appearance. Later they take the part of stagehands, appearing at points in the play, maintaining an atmosphere of menace.
Macbeth, played by Christopher Eccleston, first appears bloodied from battle. His performance became more powerful as the play unfolded, his brutality and swagger ever more disturbing as he grew more thuggish by the minute. As Lady Macbeth, Niamh Cusack displayed a psyche ever more unhinged, a manic energy giving way to psychotic illness and eventually suicide. She taunted, beguiled, humiliated, provoked and charmed her way through the play, a thrilling presence on stage. Her red stilettos mirrored the bloodied daggers that Macbeth brought forth after murdering Duncan and when she went off to murder the guards she nonchalantly kicked off her shoes, not to be hampered by any feminine frippery.
The theme of masculinity was well explored in this play with appeals to the characters’ manhood being used frequently to encourage murder. For modern audiences, the results of this toxic masculinity are all too familiar with deadly knife crime ever more present in our cities. In Macbeth, scores are settled constantly with knives; perhaps not much has changed since Elizabethan times. The misuse and abuse of power so graphically portrayed in Macbeth is mirrored on a regular basis in our news broadcasts.
Shakespeare’s plays always resonate with a modern audience partly because the personality flaws he chose for his characters are universal and timeless, but also because of his understanding of the human mind. Wellbeing and mental health awareness might be very 21st-century concerns, but Shakespeare understood the psychological consequences of guilt long before Freud and modern psychiatry.
In such an emotionally charged play, the Director has chosen to keep the emotional tone underplayed. This only heightened the poignancy of the scenes when emotion seemed initially absent but was in fact powerfully portraying the silence born of shock. This was conveyed primarily by Macduff (Edward Bennett) who appeared rather wooden, cold and cut off throughout the play until his grief broke through in a perseverative repetition of the word ‘all’ as he absorbed the fate of his slain family. It was one of the most powerful scenes in the play and almost unbearable to watch.
The higher the death toll grew in this production the more the main characters seemed to exhibit flattened affect. Lady Macbeth’s suicide note was casually crumpled up and tossed over her shoulder. When the Porter informed Macbeth in an emotionless tone that the Queen was dead, he showed little reaction. He sat on the edge of the stage in his crown, weary and worn out by his own savagery. His taste for violence remained intact, however, and he managed to give Macduff a good kicking in their final fight. Yet at the end, having surely broken most of Macduff’s ribs, he almost stuck his neck out for Macduff to administer the final cut. Macduff left the stage with resignation, not triumph. Throughout the play, murder is part of the everyday business of a tyrannical regime and in that way, too, Shakespeare mirrors our modern age only too keenly.
Banquo (Raphael Sowole) was played beautifully – the warmth and tenderness of his relationship with his son, Fleance, a foil to the evil machinations of the ‘barren sceptre’ of Macbeth. Not all the minor parts were consistently strong.
Perhaps one of the most memorable performances of the production was that of the Porter. Played by Michael Hodgson, he brought much gallows humour to the proceedings, sitting at the back of the set for most of the play, chalking up the deaths as they occurred on a blackboard. He spent the interval filling in these boards with endless rows of marks, each indicating another person slain as carnage was unleashed on Scotland. Each time another major character was murdered, he stood up to make another mark. He seemed to be the Angel of Death. He played his part with deadpan humour, hoovering up around the dead bodies, pocketing Lady Macbeth’s suicide note, eating bags of crisps while waiting for further murders to occur and even indicating to Macduff with his thumb where Macbeth was to be found, as if in a pantomime.
The staging of the production was almost like a character in itself. A large central carpet occupied much of the stage but was often left empty, a dark and brooding space, while the characters kept to a walkway around the perimeter, venturing onto the carpet only to speak their lines. They sat at the back of the stage as if they were waiting in the wings. Like a powerful tennis player who can deliver a killing blow from the baseline, so Macbeth sometimes sat at the back of the stage delivering a soliloquy. A glassed-in mezzanine was used to creative effect enabling actors to speak to the audience below while the action continued above be it a reception, dinner or a war cabinet meeting.
The theme of time was highlighted throughout the play as the narrative dealt with prophecies and moved between the present and the future. The Porter kept glancing at his wristwatch, a screen flashed ‘Later’ occasionally, and a huge digital clock, while a bit distracting, took centre stage, counting down the minutes until Macbeth’s death. But as the clock wound back to the beginning and the witches made a surprise return to end the play with the question ‘when shall we three meet again?’, it was clear that although the tyrant was dead and a new king crowned, there would be trouble ahead.
Transferring to the Barbican from the RSC in Stratford, Macbeth is the first of three productions from the RSC winter Shakespeare season. It will be followed by Romeo and Juliet and The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Macbeth runs until 18 January 2019 at the Barbican Theatre, Silk Street, London EC2Y 8DS
Looking for something a little lighter? the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Matilda is showing at the Cambridge Theatre, London, West End