Saturday, 7 April 2018

Theatre review: Macbeth (RSC / RST & Barbican)

Christopher Eccleston has spent so much time recently vocally trying to disassociate himself from Doctor Who that it's hard to remember he's ever done anything else. His latest role sees him return to the stage, for the first time at the RSC, to play the title role in Macbeth. As so often happens with Shakespeare plays (especially those on the syllabus) multiple productions have arrived at the same time, and this one coincides with the critically-panned version at the National. Well, Polly Findlay's production is infinitely more watchable than Rufus Norris', but in some ways is just as problematic. Right from the opening, Findlay and designer Fly Davis show they're not short of interesting ideas, as the audience enters to find King Duncan (David Acton) asleep in his bed, a trio of little girls looking on. These are the witches whose prophecies will turn the tide of the story when Macbeth and Banquo (Raphael Sowole) encounter them soon after a battle.

The former is told he will be a future King of Scotland, and instead of trusting in fate he decides to give it a helping hand. To the side a woman reads a letter; this is Niamh Cusack's Lady Macbeth, being informed of events as we witness them, and preparing to build her husband up to the point that he can kill Duncan and steal his throne.

The opening in Duncan's bedroom, where he's woken to receive news of his troops' success, and the waiting room where Lady Macbeth reads of her husband's supernatural encounter, hint of where Findlay is setting her modern-dress (but with swords and no guns) production: Macbeth deals with events that shake a whole nation, but most of what we see happens on the sidelines, in dark corridors and back rooms. Davis' waiting-room design emphasises this, keeping most of the deaths offstage and some of the scenes that demand something a bit more public in a glassed-in room above the main stage - our real business isn't with the characters' public faces.

So the production opens promisingly, and there are great touches throughout - I liked Macbeth stepping tentatively forwards when Duncan is about to announce his heir, only to have Luke Newberry's Malcolm be given the nod instead. Michael Hodgson's Porter is an almost permanent fixture in this nightmare waiting room, and his marking off the ever-growing number of Macbeth's victims on the walls gives an indication of the brutal dictatorship Scotland becomes under its new King, something I don't think many productions manage to convey.

The totalitarian state we're watching is also well-referenced by the scene in which Lennox (Tim Samuels) and an unnamed Lord discuss the state of affairs; here the Lord becomes a drunk young aide (Raif Clarke,) whose loose lips and disloyalty to the regime see him bumped off by Lennox, here Macbeth's fixer. The dead man returns almost immediately, his ghost one of the visions that deliver the second batch of prophecies - the others include the guards framed for Duncan's murder, and the hired killers who killed Banquo and were then disposed of. This insistence on Macbeth's death toll encompassing many more than just the named characters is another aspect I liked.

The wealth of ideas and fast pace of the action are what makes the production so strong at first, but after a while the two start to get in each other's way: It's bizarre to wish a second RSC production in a row had been longer, but Findlay's rush to get to the end - already one of the shorter plays in the canon, there's also plenty of text editing here - had me wishing she'd given us more time to delve into her ideas and the characters. Macduff, a character who's often too vaguely drawn by the time we have to accept him as the saviour of the story, is sometimes given extra stuff to do early on to get him into the audience's heads, but here we don't even see Edward Bennett on stage until he arrives after Duncan's murder, and barely at all after that, either.

It's frustrating because Findlay clearly has plans behind the portrayal of Macduff as an overweight civil servant rather than a great warrior, defeating Macbeth because the latter gives up and accepts the fate prophesied to him rather than because of his own ability; I didn't feel like we got to explore this, and perhaps this interpretation is one that makes more sense of Macduff saving his own life at the expense of his family's. After all, as people keep asking him, why did he run away when he realised the danger he was in, but make no provisions for his family's safety? (Bennett was also, of course, Laertes to David Tennant's Hamlet, making this the second Doctor he's killed on an RSC stage. I hope he continues the trend, I can't wait to see him play Brutus to Peter Capaldi's Caesar, Titus to Jodie Whittaker's Tamora, and Coriolanus to Colin Baker's Third Volscian From The Left.)

The single issue left most confused by the glut of ideas is the production's relationship with the supernatural. The witches referencing horror movie choruses of chanting little girls is a great idea, but the banality with which they're presented - in matching onesies and Uggs - suggests they're not necessarily to be taken as oracles, putting all the responsibility on Macbeth for choosing to follow their prophecies. It also sabotages the horror movie creepiness they're trying to reference. Opting for an invisible Banquo's ghost suggests he could be in Macbeth's imagination, then having him become visible at the end of the scene confuses matters.

The vagueness about whether the play's magic exists weakens an ending I otherwise really liked - I like productions hinting that the story hasn't finished, because if the witches' predictions are real it hasn't: All's well at the end because Malcolm's on the throne, but the part of the prophecy about Banquo's heirs says that won't last. Another good moment is Lady Macbeth hearing a recording of the Macduff family's murders, pinpointing it as the exact moment her sanity gives up. (Cusack is so good she even met with the approval of the teenage American students who spent the interval informing the Upper Circle of how the production was Doing It Wrong.)

Using an Ivo van Hove countdown to reference the play's obsession with time is a nice touch, the exact moment of Duncan's death being what starts the seconds ticking irreversibly down to Macbeth's own demise. In other words, Findlay's is a Macbeth that's absolutely fired up my imagination with possibilities, but didn't pull them together in the course of the play itself. In some respects it proves less is more, ditching many admittedly great conceits could have allowed those left to really flourish; in other ways more is more, proven by the fact that one of the best moments is when things are allowed to slow down and take a breath, Macbeth letting time tick past him as he waits for what he's decided is inevitable.

Macbeth by William Shakespeare is booking in repertory until the 11th of September at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon; then from the 15th of October to the 18th of January at the Barbican Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Richard Davenport.

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