RSC at the Barbican
So I deliberately chose to see the two big-hitting Macbeths this year (the RSC and the National) to see what there was by way of a contrast, and on reflection it feels to me that maybe contrasts was what this production was all about.
Pleasingly, this production had a (vaguely modern-day) setting that implied Scotland might have been, at the start, a nice place to live, rather than always being the post-apocalyptic wasteland a lot of productions like to imply. What set this one apart was the bold use of framing – literally on stage – which provided a meta-commentary on the action. Most obviously there was the countdown clock, set off at the moment Macbeth kills Duncan and counting down in our time to his own death. This failed to work for me for two (two and a half?) reasons – the first being that I inevitably had one eye on how long before I was going home*, and the second being that it was so clearly at odds with the times – “midnight”, “later” and so on – which flashed up above the action. (The half is that they had to shave ten minutes off the clock time in the interval to make it work – which was at least amusing to watch!)
The other part of meta-commentary (which worked rather better for me) was Michael Hodgson’s caretaker – sometimes involved in the action (he took on the role of porter and third murderer, turning out the lights), but with a definite sense of supernatural malice**. He also stayed on stage, quietly chalking up the death count on the back wall of the stage***, and this is the only occasion that I have been on the edge of my seat during the Macduff/Malcolm scene, conscious of time passing slipping through their fingers as the pair of them dealt in words and behind them the marks just kept going up inexorably.
Talking of things which get the blood pumping – let’s talk about the witches shall we? Their lines sharply cut – again – to remove any sense of agency or personality, what we had here were a trio of as creepy young girls as ever graced a horror movie. They spoke largely in unison, moved largely in step, and the creepy singing in the second half**** proper set my teeth on edge. Again another interesting note of contrast – when they appeared on stage at the end with young Fleance, his promised rise to power was immediately tinged with menace (and it meant poor old Malcolm was clearly doomed from the start). To be honest, my biggest take home message at this point was don’t trust kids. Ironic, since the kids in the audience (there was an ENORMOUS school party in the house) were very well-behaved!
This production had a fair bit of fancy technology going on. No rain this time, although sand fell randomly from the sky at various dramatic moments – was it meant to be an hourglass thing to go with the time motif? There was also an “upstairs” projection to give multiple levels to the action – but unfortunately for me the sound was terribly tinny. Some of Banquo’s lines were lost to the projection, and the loud knocking was distinctly flat. It also felt a bit like the stage was somewhat too big for the production***** – there was a fair bit of people either bellowing at each other from what felt like surprising distances apart, or sprinting round to get into a logical place. And I don’t think that was deliberate contrast.
Despite this, much of the staging was well thought out. I think some of the scenes in the first half were re-cut to allow, for example, an almost cinematic moment of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth resolving at the same time to seize the crown before they ever met on stage. Duncan’s naming of Malcolm as his successor (indeed, his every interaction with Macbeth) seemed to suggest a slighting of Macbeth – as well as showing, not just telling, the latter’s instinctive and compete faith in the witches’ prophecies. The decision to both have and not have Banquo’s ghost allowed us to see both sides of the scene – Macbeth’s terror and the bewilderment of his followers. More contrasts.
I didn’t get as much of a handle on the main characters, though. Christopher Eccleston played a Macbeth whose mood and resolve changed moment by moment and with no apparent cause. Maybe I am reading too much Doctor Who into the performance, but the illogic inconsistency he seemed to show felt quite alien to me. His incredibly cheery Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow speech, in particular, was frankly bizarre. By contrast, Niamh Cusack was very human – I had a wonderful sense of a woman who was used to planning, plotting even, but completely unused to seeing the outcome of those plans. My judgement may have been swayed by her fabulous wardrobe, but she seemed much less evil than she usually does.
As one would expect from an RSC production, these stars were supported by an equally stellar company. David Acton’s elderly Donald was very old-school charm, with a pair of lovely children in Donna Banya’s affectionate Donalbain and Luke Newberry’s incredible sweet Malcolm. It was no wonder that no-one in the play thinks they actually had anything to do with their father’s death. On the other hand, Malcolm was so obviously a darling ingénue that the scene with Macduff where he claims to be some kind of hideous monster was just absolutely unbelievable. Raphael Sowole’s Banquo was just as gung-ho as Macbeth – if slightly less keen to wave machetes at young girls – and at his best in his interactions with young Fleance. So too, actually, were Lady Macbeth and even Macbeth – treating the child like a cherished nephew until the time came to kill him.
Families ran strong – as well as Duncan’s and Banquo’s, we saw Macduff’s pregnant wife and children throughout the first half, which made their murder all the worse in the second half. I had a real soft spot for Edward Bennett’s slight portly, bespectacled, cardigan-wearing Macduff, who could see the way the wind was blowing. The announcement of the death of his wife was agonising, and very well played by Bally Gill’s Ross – you could feel him trying to soften the blow by lying, and making it so much worse. The contrast (that word again!) between Macduff and Eccleston’s soldierly Macbeth (he managed to give whole speeches while planking. I have tried this and it should not be a thing) actually carried through to a thoroughly realistic battle scene where Macduff was beaten round the stage, disarmed and given a good kicking. Except then, at the time appointed by that giant ticking clock, Macbeth just seemed to give up his sword and let himself be killed. I am still puzzling over that – although it is undeniable that as, Macduff says, the time was freed…
* Probably a personal issue – after King Lear and Eyam I have become a little sensitive to running times!
** And brilliant comic timing – there’s one bit with a bag of crisps that was very funny indeed.
*** Most gloriously subtle was the moment where a nod from Macbeth to someone turned into a tally mark – I didn’t get what had happened there until the couple next to me worked it out in the interval.
**** I think this was the only music in the whole production too.
***** This might be an artefact of the transfer from Stratford – but I haven’t noticed it in other RSC productions.