Updated: Nov 10, 2020
Royal Shakespeare Company, The Barbican, 29th December 2018
One word springs to mind. Understated. Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays, but a bit like a haggis, it has a lot crammed in. This production took a mere 2 hours and 5 minutes, and the second half especially raced away. Barely long enough to dish up the full contents of this dramatic offering. Time was clearly of the essence in more ways than one, with the play moving along at helter-skelter pace. (See Emma Smith's superb programme notes for more on Time).
A troubled man, quickly caught up in a whirlwind of ambition and bewilderment.
Christopher Eccleston in the title role (photo: RSC, Richard Davenport)
Something wicked came and went, by the clicking of fingers as well as the pricking of thumbs. But if it sounds like I’m grumbling, RSC, screw your courage to the sticking place. There may be bumps along the way but stay with me to the end of the piece.
Let’s start with the blood spilling. You never know what you’re gonna get with the RSC. On this occasion there was very little blood, due to most of the killings being ritualised.
There were the usual bloody hands but we didn’t see Duncan stabbed. All was hidden in the tent backstage. We were told beforehand that this version of Macbeth would be plumbing the psychological depths rather than concentrating on the physical, so that was fair, but I couldn’t stop thinking of the line:
“who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?”
A trace of evidence of a bloody business (photo: Richard Davenport)
Most of the killings took place behind the curtains. Probably a good thing since the murders included the slaughter of the Macduff family. There was a bit of a pantomime feel at this post-Christmas matinee performance – in the audience only I hasten to add. On stage it was deadly serious.
Eventually, after some clumsy stage fighting between Macbeth and Macduff, we finally saw a decent slit of the throat, delivered with a classy, almost nonchalant swish of a sword by one not born of woman. Macbeth (Christopher Eccleston) had foolishly eased off at this point, fearing no man and thinking they had fought enough.
There was plenty of humour, without ever stumbling too far into comedy. Some amusing water cooler moments, some great "Knock knock, who’s there?" jokes delivered by the porter with perfect exasperation. And the ever rip-roaringly funny mock-soliloquy on the emasculating power of alcohol:
“It provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance”
But generally there were chuckles rather than hoots, which seemed just right.
The Porter (Michael Hodgson) chalking up another of his master's victims
(photo: Richard Davenport)
There were also some lines bumbled by the RSC, to my mind. The very English sounding conqueror of Macbeth rather under-cooked the normally show-stopping:
“Macduff was from his mother’s womb untimely ripped”
I suppose it’s fair to try and find new ways to say things. But Edward Bennett's delivery was a bit dull and any shock factor got lost in his conversational style.
In another case, the mistake was in my own head. I was convinced Niamh Cusack got it wrong when she said “What’s done is done” in the third act. But, I see from the Alexander text that the line I had expected actually came in the final act as a variation on the original. So I humbly submit my apology, Ms Cusack. And yet I fear that
“What’s done cannot be undone”
Niamh Cusack telling Christopher Eccleston how it's done in rehearsal
(photo: RSC, Sophie Teasdale)
The use of split levels was clever in parts. On one occasion the witches appeared at first above and then below within a micro-second. A seemingly impossible feat, suggesting a hologram or some other video magic. Lady Macbeth partied and smooched with the King (David Acton) on the upper level, leaving her husband to pour out his tortured soul on the main stage down below.
For her downfall, I would have liked to have seen Lady Macbeth tumble from the ramparts. Asking a lot I know. But she could at least have given us a blood-curdling scream. When Macbeth asked “wherefore was that cry” I had to conjure up the noise for myself. Maybe that was the point. To Macbeth, in his state of mind, it was barely the screech of an owl.
So annoying when women wear their pyjamas around the castle
Niamh Cusack as Lady Macbeth (photo: Richard Davenport)
Much has been made of how Shakespeare’s was obsessed with Time in this play. The RSC jumped on this with a digital display on high showing a countdown of two hours from the murder of Duncan to the fall of Macbeth. Then it stopped at zero, only to start again when Malcolm claimed the crown and an angry young Fleance stalked the stage to get his father’s line going. The sur-titles, including ‘LATER’ in giant letters were unnecessary. Any production that needs to put up such words seems a bit lacking in how it handles one of the dramatic unities.
Digitally remastered (photo:Richard Davenport)
And here’s a strange thing: Christopher Eccleston’s spell as a Time Lord in Dr Who is not even mentioned in his credits in the programme. But that didn’t stop me half expecting to see the TARDIS materialise on stage when the curtain first went up.
In theatreland, Macbeth is always talked of as the Scottish Play but Polly Findlay, the Director, seemed not to have received the memo. There was barely a hint of a Scottish accent. The closest to this was Niamh Cusack’s gentle Irish brogue. She almost broke into Scottish a few times but quickly lost it again. There was not a glass of whisky to be had. Just wine. And the costumes included the usual suits and semi-contemporary combats, but never a kilt in sight. As for Edward Bennett, he was closer to Duffman than Macduff. I jest. We all know Duffman is American.
A very English sounding Macduff (Edward Bennett)
(photo: Richard Davenport)
And finally we come to the witches at the Barbican. Far from traditional. Not remotely old, ugly or hag-ridden. Not Shakespeare’s foul monstrosities as seen by Macbeth. Is this where the psychology really kicks in? Are they only ugly and horrendous in his mind? Here, we saw three schoolgirls. Dressed in matching red dresses, white tights and buckled shoes. Speaking in perfect unison in an impossibly sweet voice. They appeared rather too often for me; frequently helping to shift the scenery. But I suppose they were ever present in Macbeth’s mind.
Every production benefits from a USP and this saccharine sweetness was definitely a strength. Baffling and wrong. And yet it worked. Annoyingly so! Charming, in a nice way, and then charming in a deeply disturbing way. How can such delightful young things inspire regicide, ghoulish hallucinations and mental disintegration? This was a master stroke.
Disturbing the feast: the Ghost of Banquo (Raphael Sowole)
(photo: Richard Davenport)
There were many surprises at the Barbican, especially the sense of dramatic minimalism. But, all told, the experience was immensely enjoyable. Not a classic Macbeth, but rewardingly different. A different sense of the other in the magical realm. There was plenty of mental disturbance, as promised. But for me the presentation was nowhere near as psychologically dark as had been advertised. I wanted an even deeper level of intensity.
We had stirring conflict and playful riddles. Time and relative dimensions. All wrapped up in an English version of Scottish. With plenty of equivocation. And if you feel I have tricked you by withholding information, I urge you to buy, beg or steal a ticket and you can consult the not-so-ugly sisters for yourself. You’ll be charmed and terrified all at the same time.
© Eddie Hewitt 2019
See the Connected Cultures feature on the many attractions of the Scottish Play,