Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Polly Findlay
Polly Findlay’s work often has a polarising effect, and while her Merchant of Venice for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2015 was an unyielding portrait of Shakespeare’s characters, her more recent production Macbeth – a play that contends so decisively with evil – fails to get beneath the verse or the skin of its tyrannous warrior. This 2018 production starring Christopher Ecclestone and Niamh Cusack added to the BBC iPlayer as part of the Culture in Quarantine series instead becomes a strangely blunted affair.
Excepting the opening scene set on the battlefield with Macbeth and Banquo in military fatigues, this is a strangely corporate Macbeth as middle-aged men in business suits, or worse still cardigans, talk about death, vengeance and the power of fate as though they were discussing where to hold their next tax conference. The whole approach lacks menace and the military heft of men contending for the greatest position in the land. And the camera fails to locate any atmosphere in the room, rarely using the tightest shots to try and enter their minds.
Findlay’s production has lots of ideas and there are moments of power and possibility. The deaths of MacDuff’s family retains its shock factor, while the interpretation of the witches as three young children speaks to one of the play’s core themes, but none of these ideas is properly carried through the play. Very little is made of the Macbeth’s childless state, while the clock countdown fails to provide the urgency this version so badly needs, instead becoming a marker of how much more there is to endure. And why start the clock and the Porter’s chalked-up body count after Macbeth becomes King instead of Duncan and his stewards’ deaths where Macbeth’s fate is firmly sealed?
This is an intellectualised version of play, everyone speaks the verse with clarity and they clearly understand what is being said, but at no point do they really feel it. The extremes and non-linear progress of Macbeth is ignored in this monotone production. There is no passion, no danger, no life and death intensity, no fear of the unknown and the burning power of human ambition, no evil or inevitability that so brilliantly contend across this play. It has no ferocity even when the camera tries to manufacture some in the close-ups of the ticking clock.
Christopher Ecclestone’s miscast monarch looks intimidating, but his Macbeth is too emphatic in his speechifying. Every part of the play has the same shouty deliver, there is little subtlety or sense of guilt overwhelming and clouding his thoughts. The confliction that unevenly troubles Macbeth throughout is barely explored or how his growing paranoia leads directly to a murderous reign that shores-up his throne. Ecclestone’s unvarying performance is hugely disappointing, because, like much of this surface-focused production, he is never inside the character or Macbeth’s changing psychological states, understanding how his experiences breakdown and how his encounters with the supernatural affect his decision-making.
Niamh Cusack’s Lady Macbeth starts off well, clearly suggesting her initial malice and willingness to murder her royal guest, but later Cusack’s madness scene is far too busy and skittish, missing any delicacy or empathy the lines could offer and barely making sense of how the different parts of the speech hang together. Edward Bennett feels equally uncomfortable as MacDuff and dressed like an accountant in glasses and tailored suit with little to suggest the desperate warrior he needs to become as he so fatefully decides where his allegiance lies.
Designer Fly Davis has created an interestingly portioned stage with a curtained area at the rear implying dark deeds and projected titles that shape scenes with quotes or locational information. But Findlay’s style-over-substance Macbeth lacks both gravitas and a looming inevitability that the play requires, never questioning whether fate or human agency drives the story. If you need a two-hour Macbeth film to fill your quarantined hours, then Justin Kurzel’s exceptional 2015 movie with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard is the one to choose because this one doesn’t even come close.
Streaming here until August 2020