Theater Review: Macbeth, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

Given the price of theater tickets, it’s not uncommon to depend on reviews to help make your decisions. In my case, living just outside of Stratford-upon-Avon, I get tickets for all the Royal Shakespeare Company’s productions of Shakespeare plays, and many, if not most, of the other plays they perform. (Though after having been disappointed by a number of plays in the Swan Theatre, where they present works by Shakespeare’s contemporaries as well as recent plays, I’ve decided to sit out a number of them.) Many people trust the opinions of theater critics, perhaps more so than, say, movie or book critics, because of that cost.

But we buy tickets well in advance in order to get good seats, and often all we know about a play is who is directing it; in some cases, we know who the lead actors are. With the current Macbeth, which opened this week, the play was announced (if I recall correctly) last September, with tickets sold starting in October, so we essentially trust the RSC to put on good productions.

And this one is essentially sold out; you may find the occasional return, but the draw of Christopher Eccleston in the lead role and Niamh Cusack as Lady Macbeth was enough to provide the best sales the RSC has had, most likely, since another ex Doctor Who (David Tennant) played Richard II in 2013.

When previews started for Macbeth, I heard some distressing comments from some RSC-loving acquaintances: people who are generally upbeat about all RSC productions were very down on this play. Some greatly disliked it, and others felt it was weak overall. The press hasn’t been very kind; press night was Tuesday, and good reviews are scarce, with the majority coming in – on the standard scale of five stars – at two or three stars. I don’t recall seeing so many negative reviews of an RSC show since the 2016 production of The Two Noble Kinsmen.

At the same time, the National Theatre in London is running its own Macbeth (it turns out the play is on the GCSE curriculum in the UK this year, which explains why there were so many teenagers in school uniforms at the theater last night) which has also been savaged.

Of the four big plays – the others being Hamlet, King Lear, and Othello – this one is my least favorite. I’ve often found it a bit confusing, and it’s a very subtle balance to get a Macbeth and Lady Macbeth that work well together. For example, a version with Kenneth Branagh that was broadcast to cinemas in 2013 was visceral and powerful, but I didn’t care for Alex Kingston’s Lady Macbeth (curiously, another Doctor Who alumnus).

The RSC production is directed by Polly Findlay, who has a liking of gimmicks that can be disturbing. I’ve seen two of her RSC productions: the 2015 Merchant of Venice and the 2014 Arden of Faversham. The Merchant of Venice was not a favorite with critics either, and I noted that in my review. (You can see this on DVD or Blu-Ray: (Amazon.com, Amazon UK).) It’s not that critics don’t like this director; many of her other productions have been well reviewed; it seems limited to her RSC productions.

And I don’t get it. This Macbeth was thrilling, exciting, scary, and the spectacle was powerful. Yes, there were gimmicks; many of them worked, some didn’t. But they didn’t detract from the excellent performances by Eccleston and Cusack in the lead roles.

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(Photos by Richard Davenport for the RSC.)

You can’t stage Macbeth without some hint of magic, and Findlay’s choice here was to cast the weird sisters as young girls – about eight to ten years old – wearing pink pajamas and holding dolls. They were on the stage when the audience entered the theater, together with the ailing King Duncan lying in a bed, and sat there patiently until the lights went down. They spoke in unison, and their voices were miked and processed to sound spooky. They immediately made me think of the twin girls in The Shining, and with that in mind, much of the production made sense. This was a horror movie version of Macbeth, with prophecies by seemingly innocent girls, with ghosts, and even sort-of-zombies later in the play.

Macbeth learns that he will be king, and in the build-up to his taking action by killing Duncan, Niamh Cusack’s Lady Macbeth is subtly manipulative. When Macbeth finally murders Duncan – offstage – one of the more disturbing gimmicks appears. A digital clock at the back, center of the stage lights up and starts counting down from 02:00:00. It’s obvious that this 24-like clock is counting the time that remains in Macbeth’s life. (For those who haven’t seen the play, and aren’t familiar with the plot, this might seem perplexing.)

There are many problems with the clock, starting with the fact that it is there, ticking down throughout the play. (Similar to the pendulum in The Merchant of Venice, perhaps). It is distracting, but that is obviously its intention. If you know the plot, it doesn’t add anything, knowing exactly when the climax is coming, and if you don’t know the plot, you would probably be confused. But, also, it means that the play has to be timed perfectly for the climax to occur at 00:00:00. (More on that later.)

Now that the murder has been committed, Macbeth becomes king. But he’s not a very flamboyant king. After a brief bit of pomp – a red carpet, some cheering – he takes his throne: a cheap office chair. He looks like a middle manager king.

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After Macbeth has Banquo murdered, he holds a banquet, and sees the latter’s ghost, in the scene which starts showing his unwinding. After everyone leaves the banquet, the weird sisters again visit him in a delightfully spooky scene with smoke, these three little girls cornering him on the stage, giving him more prophecies.

The intermission comes shortly after this, in what may be one of the biggest missed opportunities of the play. The running time is said to be 2:13, and this play can be performed without an intermission. This would have allowed the intensity that had built up slowly to not die in glasses of chardonnay and waits to go to the toilets. The Kenneth Branagh production of 2013 ran without an intermission, and it was a bit longer, around 2:30. But, of course, if there were no intermission, then the clock wouldn’t work; it continued counting down during the intermission. It would have had to start at 00:01:40 otherwise, and that wouldn’t look as good.

The second part of the play, much shorter at under 50 minutes, went by very quickly. We soon get to the pivotal scene where Lady Macbeth is sleepwalking, trying to expunge the deed she has done. This had Niamh Cusack wander around the edges of the stage, sit on one side facing the audience, then walk off. My partner and I were sitting in the third row, on the right side, next to the vom. When Lady Macbeth went out, I though she was going off stage, but then suddenly she was standing in front of me. With a blank look on her face, she held out her hand to my partner and said, “Take my hand. What is done cannot be undone.” She stood there for a few seconds, then walked away. (It’s not uncommon to have this sort of audience interaction at the RSC.)

There is a slow scene, where Macduff, in exile, learns that his wife and children are killed, which leads him to decide to return to kill Macbeth. Macduff was played by Edward Bennet, who doesn’t look at all like a soldier, but more like a slightly overweight civil servant, and his blank reaction to the death of his family was very poignant.

Now the clock was ticking down its final minutes, and Macduff arrives to challenge Macbeth. The fight scene – just the two of them, no armies on stage – dragged on a bit, undoubtedly because the coup de grĂ¢ce had to occur exactly at 00:00:00, and was a bit clumsy.

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Malcolm is crowned at the end, and here we see the true meaning of the clock, as it resets to 02:00:00, indicating that no king can hold the throne for very long.

There are gimmicks, as I said: confetti falling onto the stage at times, then something that looks like ashes. A scene where a few of the dead come back looking like zombies. And the porter; let’s not forget him (Michael Hodgson). There’s only one scene where he speaks, yet he sits onstage, in a chair at the back – sometimes on the left, sometimes on the right – as an omnipresent conscience, or perhaps a gatekeeper to hell. He counts off the dead, in chalk on the brick walls on either side of the stage, and also helps out a bit with the lighting: he turns lights on and off, and even uses a flashlight at times to illuminate the audience.

There were some issues with the staging. Those sitting in the front rows, and perhaps the second row, couldn’t see the stage, because a border about a foot high was added to the edges of the stage. One teenager in front of me was able to get a cushion, but some people I know who saw the play in previews complained about missing much of what happened at the back of the stage. The sound wasn’t great; as a review in The Times said, “There were, however, problems with the sound that often made me feel I was watching something called MacMumble.” I believe this was because the stage was carpeted – something they don’t do often at the RSC – which muffled the voices. There were some actors who I couldn’t understand, particularly Macduff’s son, and even the weird sisters, with their processed voices, were hard to follow.

The lighting was inventive, but the bit where certain lines, or words like LATER and NOW, were projected on the back of the stage seemed superfluous. And the music – recorded, which is generally not the case at the RSC, which has long prided itself on using live musicians – seemed distant and sometimes overbearing.

I’m no fan of Christopher Eccleston; I don’t watch Doctor Who, and I don’t recall ever seeing him in a movie or TV series, but I felt that, in spite of a certain consistency of his attitude throughout the play, he was excellent. Niamh Cusack was brilliant as Lady Macbeth, and the relationship between the two of them was well portrayed. I felt a number of the lesser characters weren’t quite adequate, but they didn’t detract from the overall sinister feeling of the production.

After the tired togas of the Rome season – I very much liked Julius Caesar, truly disliked Antony and Cleopatra, and left at the intermission of Coriolanus – this Macbeth ranks with last year’s Titus Andronicus (which I saw five times) as one of the more innovative productions at the RSC since I’ve been attending their shows. I look forward to seeing it again, especially after it’s been running for a while, and things get smoother.

As I said earlier, it is essentially sold out for its entire run through September, then for a Barbican run of three months in London, but there will be the occasional return, especially if people listen to the critics. It will be broadcast to cinemas on April 11, which, in a way, is a shame; it’s early in the run, and would be better after the production has settled, but this will look great on film.

But I look forward to seeing it again. There’s a lot to dislike, if you have certain feelings about the way a Shakespeare play should be presented, but, to me, this is one of the more interesting RSC productions in a long time.

2 thoughts on “Theater Review: Macbeth, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

  1. The first time I took notice of Eccleston as an actor was in Peter Flannery’s; excellent ‘Our Friends in the North’ a BBC drama from the mid nineties. It’s well worth a watch.

    Flannery as you may know was with the RSC in the seventies and early eighties.

  2. It’s not “Macbeth” — it’s “The Scottish Play”! (There’s a Black Adder episode that plays with the superstition of calling the play by its actual name.)

    The prefixing of “fell” to “swoop” probably comes from The Scottish Play, and most people don’t realize that “fell” means “evil”. Many things can occur in swoops that aren’t evil.

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