Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts! Unsex me here.
Polly Findlay’s retelling of Shakespeare’s infamous tale of deadly ambition has come up against a flurry of Macbeths; the National Theatre having recently ended their run of witchcraft-ed macabre with Rory Kinnear and Anne Marie-Duff as the conniving couple. Never to be outdone, the RSC have come back with a couple of stars of their own in the forms of Christopher Eccleston and Niamh Cusack. From the National’s classical warbles of doubt and trepidation, the sound of which tired me within five minutes, here we have a couple gritty, ageing, sexy and steely.
Eccleston and Cusack – along with the production as a whole – far exceed the National’s misjudged jigsaw Macbeth but, again, one is left with the feeling that star casting, despite its economic draws, fails to dazzle.
Findlay’s 2015 The Merchant of Venice was upstaged by the stage itself (resplendent, gold, and odd) but instead of large set-pieces, this Macbeth is blown up with large concepts: a Stephen King-esque set of child witches and a creepy Porter turn the Scottish play into a horror film – with details in the programme labelling Macbeth as the first slasher. This concept works very nicely, adding a surprising new chill-factor to a well-worn play. Beyond this, the three taunting ‘weird sisters’ take on a new dimension, perhaps taunting Macbeth for his childlessness, a fact that becomes even more pressing when we see Macduff with his baby carrier and chunky cardigan. This childlessness of the Macbeths is touched upon, notably in Niamh Cusack’s breakdown, but comes to little in the end.
Lady Macbeth is given a cold flirtatiousness and a zealous ruthlessness by Cusack, who lends this iconic she-wolf the vulnerability she needs without falling into tedium or, worse, boredom. The “out damned spot” scene is fresh and dynamic, bounding with an energy I have never seen an actress lend before. A moment to appreciate Fly Davis’ design, as Lady Macbeth’s costumes are just delightful, oozing the confidence and glamour of a well-tuned hostess: the silver dress is just great. Meanwhile, Eccleston speaks the verse with gorgeous clarity, hardy with his regional dialect (“it was a rough night” proved unexpectedly funny), and gives hints to Macbeth’s twitching ambition even at the first.
However, despite both actors being household names, and both delivering some stunning moments, they sometimes stumbled down where the theatre veterans soared. A certain coldness to the Macbeths never quite defrosted, and even the meanings of lines were occasionally lost or garbled away. Far better than Kinnear and Duff, but a little way from truly satisfying.
Edward Bennett – an RSC favourite of mine since his sumptuous turn-of-the-century Berowne in Love’s Labours Lost in 2014 – is a marvel. His verse-speaking is well-nigh perfect, as easy to him it seems as breathing, and he swaps histrionics for broken shock and numb despair; his desperate repetition of “All?” after hearing of the deaths of his children is nothing short of heartbreaking. As Malcolm, Luke Newberry is eloquent, composed, and sweet – understandable how hard-talking Macbeth trembles at the thought of kneeling to such a shuffling youth, but joyous for the audience to see someone so likeable receive his crown in the end. Fleance is set to be a disturbance, however, in a wonderfully gasp-inducing ending which I can add to my bank of proof that no one does endings like the RSC. Bally Gill, the RSC’s young new Romeo, is so watchable in bit-roles here and there and – though I missed his turn as the young Montague – it’s clear to see how he’s become a rising star.
Large ensemble scenes, unusually, prove some of the most fascinating of the play – with a very talented array of ensemble actors (Gill among them) creating delicious atmospheres. The appearance of Banquo’s ghost, a scene usually focusing on Macbeth’s internal struggle, becomes a scene illustrating his outward mania, with the silent embarrassment of the gathered friends painful to watch. Similarly, the iconic image of Findlay’s production has got to be the flutter of gold confetti and the swell of choral music as the long, triumphant shadows of the Macbeths loom across the red carpet, and Macbeth finally receives his crown. It’s a real emotional and visual punch that such a minimal set elsewhere fails to produce. Another visual strength is the analogue clock; beginning at two hours precisely after Macbeth has killed Duncan, and reaching zero at the precise moment of Macbeth’s death. One must commend the actors, and the climax is bloody exciting.
Perhaps I wanted more from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s chilling take on Macbeth – Macbeth is a play I struggle to get along with easily – and, though I must say I enjoyed the production a lot, I must concede that it felt surprisingly safe, particularly when paired with the Swan Theatre’s insane The Duchess of Malfi (which takes ‘slasher’ to dizzying heights as well as, importantly, picking the text apart and being risky with it). Where there are dazzling concepts, the characterisations are tame, and where the actors are beautiful, one can’t help but want more. I may be asking too much, or perhaps the Scottish play is not made for me; but when this production worked, with Edward Bennett sapping the auditorium of its breath or Lady Macbeth grasping the hand of an audience member or the Porter singling people out with his torch, unnerving in precision.
It works, and I enjoyed it, but the most watchable and gripping moments were all too brief.