What: Macbeth by William Shakespeare
Who: Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC)
Where: Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon
When: 20th March 2018
When a familiar play opens and you see characters normally associated with adults being played by pre-teen girls, it is difficult to stifle an inward groan. But, in actuality, this production of Macbeth is very strong indeed and is one which you should hunt for tickets for. It really does have an awful lot to commend it. This is a taut, energetic production with some exceptional acting.
I’ll explain the quirky nature of the “weird sisters” in a moment but first let’s turn our attention to the successful casting of the play’s two leads.
Macbeth is played by Christopher Eccleston. Now very few people will hear that name without asking whether he is the actor who was Doctor Who before David Tennant (who has some considerable RSC successes of his own under his belt, of course) and yes, it is that one.
Now, I’ve found some of Mr Tennant’s work – notably in the RSC’s Richard II in 2013 – a little one dimensional but here in Eccleston we have a character-interpreter strong enough to rival Tennant’s early work in Hamlet. We believe that he is scared by the witches. We are convinced that he is so enthralled by his wife’s ambition as to become persuaded that he should kill Duncan. We see how his later meeting with the weird sisters gives a sense of invincibility. And he almost gains a full house in the way his confidence drains when he finds that Macduff is “not of woman born”. This final scene is perhaps a little rushed or eaten up by the intense action to allow him to explore the characterisation as much as he does the other traits.
If Mr Eccleston has an equal in this cast (and I believe he does), it is very much Niamh Cusack in her return to the RSC. She brings everything that is needed to the role of Lady Macbeth. She is introduced into the play full of bounce and energy and excitement. She is alluring, sexual, and flirtatious as she persuades her husband to regicide. She toughens and hardens when she sees her husband’s flaws and weaknesses and returns daggers that he has mistakenly carried bloody from the King’s bed-chamber.
After a veritable rainbow of emotions, we see her, at the last, convincingly disturbed and insane and ready to commit suicide. It will be hard to find a better Lady Macbeth than this. There will be other interpretations but for the road that Ms. Cusack has chosen to take the character down, this is pretty near flawless.
Other strong performances? Well, first we must turn to Michael Hodgson’s version of the Porter. I played this role myself last year and this is a very different performance than mine but it is a crucial linking point for the director’s (Polly Findlay) viewpoint of the play. Mr Hodgson is used in nearly all the scenes of the play as opposed to in the original script where the Porter is the slightly sinister and entirely comedic link preceding the revelation of Duncan’s death to the wider cast. Here, he is mostly a silent witness counting the number of those who die and monitoring the large digital clock which is counting down the time until Macbeth ceases to hold sway. Also he is used as a substitute for some of the small characters – a linkman for others to engage in dialogue with.
That large digital clock is a central point of what otherwise is quite a simple stage design particularly by contrast with some of the very elaborate stagings that the RSC budget has allowed for in recent years. It emphasises that, in the view of the director and company, time is very central to Shakespeare’s ideas in this play. As is the usual peculiar feature of the RSC’s theatre programme booklet, an expert has been commissioned – in this instance Professor Emma Smith of Oxford University – to ram home the idea so that we simple viewers do not miss it. Having watched the clock and read the essay, I can see that it is one of many potential themes if not as central as the director would like us to see it. It is though a useful tool which gives a solid direction to the plot – and is much more convincing than the “central” ideas that have been floated in some other recent RSC productions.
Edward Bennett is a mixed bag as Macduff. Mr Bennett has a good history with the RSC with strong roles in Love’s Labour’s Lost and the mis-titled Much Ado About Nothing pairing of a few years ago and rather made his name with a very creditable understudy call-up for David Tennant in the aforementioned Hamlet when Mr Tennant was absent because of a physical injury. His closing scene opposite Macbeth is very good but earlier when he slouches around in a cardigan opposite Luke Newberry’s Malcolm who is dressed in a cheap suit, he is part of a scene which rather sees much of the production’s energy temporarily evaporate.
Peculiarities? David Acton’s Duncan is more elderly than he needs to be – and wheelchair-bound – particularly bearing in mind the youth of his eldest son, Malcolm.
And then back to those weird sisters. The witches are played by young schoolgirls holding dollies. Their voices add a ringing weird-ness to the idea but their youth means that much of the witches’ speeches must be eliminated. This along with some other cuts means that the whole production (less the interval) clocks in (pun intended) at only a fraction over two hours which is a shame because this is such a good production.
But I meander. Please don’t let my cautious notes take away from the fact that this is an exceptional piece of theatre with two sterling lead actors as its strongest suit.