The RSC’s production of Macbeth, directed by Polly Findlay, takes up its London residency at the Barbican, bringing the famed brutalism of the theatre right onto the stage itself. But this restrained yet multifaceted production doesn’t quite hit the spot…
Findlay’s production has several themes and symbols coursing through it; at the forefront is a preoccupation with time. The stage is framed by several chairs, a large potted plant and a water cooler evocative of a waiting room, around which the ominous porter (here a creepy caretaker) lingers, keeping time and occasionally having a hand in various misdeeds. The production has a number of other gimmicks including the casting of children as the witches, the notching up of deaths upon a wall and the glaring metaphor of a very large digital clock counting down the time from Duncan’s death until Macbeth’s. It’s all just a little bit heavy-handed, and a bit confused. That’s not to say that the production lacks layers of symbolism, indeed the clock not only pervades proceedings with an awareness of mortality as well as instilling the idea that in murdering his king Macbeth also sealed his own fate, but the striking visual of the clock itself looks very similar to the counter on a bomb, thereby evoking the context of the original play, which was penned in the months following the Gunpowder Plot.
One result of this heavy-handedness is that the themes and plot of the play become more accessible to an audience unfamiliar with Shakespeare. Without intending in the slightest to sound condescending, this production would be ideal for anyone studying the play at GCSE or A Level. The text’s subtleties are extracted and laid bare, and then emphasised by sound and lighting that leaves no doubt as to when the audience should feel suspense, fear, shock, pathos or mirth.
Findlay’s Macbeth (Christopher Eccleston) and Lady Macbeth (Niamh Cusack) are here presented as a childless middle-aged couple driven by ambition following a prophecy to murder the King of Scotland so that Macbeth may take his place. They fill the void left by children with their ruthless ambition for power, driven perhaps more by grief than pure nihilistic evil, clinging to one another as they head over the cliff of a psychotic break. In a recent interview with A Younger Theatre, Cusack explained this imagined backstory of the couple, and its humanising effect: ‘The Macbeths are flesh and blood, they’re not monsters.’
Though humanised, they are still certainly not likeable, either as a couple or individually. There is a tangible coolness in their relationship, which is invigorated by their mutual lust for power that in turn seems to sexually excite them. Cusack’s is a restless, roving Lady Macbeth who descends from sequinned glamour to babbling wreck with composure, whilst Eccleston’s Macbeth is a swaggering soldier past his prime, who perhaps doesn’t realise it yet.
There is an intelligently rendered contrast between Eccleston’s performative hyper-masculinity, and Edward Bennett’s family man, both raising and answering questions about manhood. Bennett’s cardiganed, bespectacled, papoose-wearing family man gives us easily the most stirring moment of the whole play when told of the merciless slaughter of every one of his children. Bennett’s summoning of MacDuff’s grief is an impressively heart-wrenching performance. When told to handle his grief “as a man” he responds with the strikingly woke (even by twenty-first century standards) response that he must also “feel it as a man”. It is telling that in today’s society it is viewed as almost as emasculating to show any emotion as a man as it was in the early seventeenth century. With Macduff’s ultimate triumph over Macbeth, we also see the championing of this softer, more emotional form of manliness over Macbeth’s embodiment of toxic masculinity.
Though the production lacks a clear, cohesive vision, it does present a humanising and accessible version of the play. In trying to interweave so many themes, it sacrifices subtly and therefore the eeriness of atmosphere that gives any production of Macbeth that essential sinister edge. The programme cites Macbeth as the “original horror film”, but for me all the best horror films succeed in unnerving you without you understanding exactly how, something that is not here realised.
Macbeth is playing at the Barbican Theatre until 18 January. For more information and tickets, click here.