I honestly don’t know how to begin this review. The RSC’s new production of Macbeth starring Christopher Eccleston is jarring to say the least. Macbeth as a play is probably one of Shakespeare’s most accessible tragedies and Polly Findlay’s production doesn’t struggle in telling the story, it’s just vastly confused in how it does it.
Usually I wouldn’t breakdown a production into it’s elements but for this show, it feels entirely necessary. Fly Davis’ production design is caught between modernity and historical, combining bells, regal costumes and weapons from yester-year with a large digital clock, tailored suits and an abundance of projection. Productions in the past have succeeded in being “timeless” so to speak but in Macbeth, it just feels confused. It’s difficult to place where or when the narrative is taking place and whilst that gives credence for the production to highlight themes and character dynamics, it only serves to distance one from the production; as much as the actors seem to want to force us in. There are some neat little design choices that made it visually appealing, a concealed balcony that was used to provide crosscutting and other ways to scare the audience through sound and lighting cues but after the first few uses, they just became repetitive. Similarly, there were some effects that were frankly peculiar. An abundance of falling dirt at various points in the play seemed to serve some metaphorical purpose, perhaps an attempt to physically sully the characters of the play in light of their sins, but instead it became bizarre. Then there was the lightsaber sound effect when Macbeth’s sword met Macduff’s in the final battle which unfortunately made me dribble my post interval orange juice. Need I say more?
“Christopher Eccleston and Niamh Cusack’s Macbeth and Lady Macbeth do nothing to salvage this confused production”
Turning to Polly Findlay’s directorial choices, there are a number of similar issues. The programme notes draw comparison between Macbeth and the modern horror film which is certainly not illogical. Yet the comparison seems to have grown into a half-baked production concept. The RSC’s Macbeth is chockfull of horror tropes: jump scares, nursery rhymes, the creepy janitor and ghosts emerging from darkness. The witches, cast as three young girls, were lifted straight out of The Children of The Damned and dressed in pink onesies. Despite their performances doing no wrong, this directorial choice bore little relevance to the rest of the play. Although there are textual references that some suggest relate to the Macbeth’s lost child, Findlay brushed these aside bar two incredibly fleeting nods, leaving this child ensemble at a loss. The production also heavily features a countdown timer. Throughout the production, I was impressed at how the timings coincided with events in the play, when it finally reached zero, it was revealed to simply be the tool for a very lame punchline. In a play that has one of the most famous lines about time:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.
it felt both heavy handed and again, half-baked.
With Macbeth, a poor production can be made up for by stellar performances. Unfortunately, Christopher Eccleston and Niamh Cusack’s Macbeth and Lady Macbeth do nothing to salvage this confused production. Eccleston’s Macbeth seems to chart no development, started the play as odd and ending as odd. Rushing through lines, engaging in intense eye contact with audience members and throwing lines around as punchlines doesn’t allow for any engagement with Macbeth as a character. As an audience we have to follow his course of certainty, to uncertainty and into divine arrogance but Eccleston’s Macbeth finds none of those points, instead opting to pace around the stage and find various places to sit or stand, presumably indicating some emotion. His intonation and vocal delivery throughout the production was equally strange. It occurred to me that perhaps some of this might be down to Findlay’s directorial instruction but an actor of Eccleston’s quality should be held to a higher bar. Unfortunately, this performance will not create a legacy.
“a half-baked production concept”
His opposite number in Niamh Cusack is on a similar plane of madness, and not in the way the character should be. When we first meet Lady Macbeth, she’s almost skipping around the stage like a child squealing her way through her husband’s letter. That continues for the rest of the production, Cusack’s Lady Macbeth shares no chemistry with her husband. There are times when it feels like the two are trying as hard as possible to stay away from each other, playing cat and mouse around the RSC theatre’s impossibly large stage. When Cusack’s Lady Macbeth does finally go mad, she darts around the stage, torch in hand wearing a pair of pyjamas, doing her best impression of a chase scene from Scooby-Doo and The White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland. If that doesn’t say cliché, I don’t know what does.
I wish that the supporting cast at least provided some solace but alack, they do not. David Acton’s Duncan seems to have done his character research based on Rowan Atkinson’s depiction of the mad king in his Men In Pink Tights skit; Tom Padley and Stevie Basaula’s Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels murderers only further serve to bemuse proceedings and Luke Newberry’s Malcolm is just unbelievable, even as Malcolm is a boy in man’s clothing; he grows into it as the narrative unfolds. Clearly, it is unfair to lambast these actors and Polly Findlay has to take some credit for directing them in such a way, solidifying these wild character choices.
“There are moments that are, frankly, laughable”
There are however, two great things about Findlay’s Macbeth. The first is Tim Samuel’s Lennox, who cuts a genuinely threatening silhouette as Macbeth’s right-hand man as he becomes the fully fledged tyrant. A refreshing take on the character who so often serves as simple a prominent member of the Scottish Court. The second and most interesting is Findlay’s take on the Porter, played by Michael Hodgson. Findlay places the Porter on stage throughout the entire production acting as both witness and timekeeper, his presence being felt as the tension gets higher and higher. He is the one who sets the timer, marks the body count in tallies on the wall and repeatedly cleans up after the Macbeth’s. The Porter is generally considered some comic relief in Macbeth and that’s not forgotten in Findlay’s production allowing Hodgson to control all of the genuinely funny moments in the play. If it wasn’t for him, then I might have left simply remembering the large number of funnies that fell significantly flat. It’s not Hodgson’s comic ability that makes him memorable however, it’s the way he plays with the ambiguity of his role. His character has been shrouded in mystery by Findlay, leaving more questions than answers. In a play that is so steeped in superstition and the supernatural, I’m glad there’s something to want to delve into.
The RSC’s Macbeth is clearly not a resounding success. There are moments that are, frankly, laughable and a performance from Christopher Eccleston that, as some will have seriously forked out for, is well below par. However, some of the design choices work and, at least on a superficial level, make it comfortable to look at. Findlay’s strange culture clash of horror and Shakespeare isn’t one I can say I want to encounter again but I can only hope that the production grows into itself during its run. But, this reviewer doesn’t have high hopes.
Image: Richard Davenport