Macbeth – Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

Reviewer: Katy Roberts

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Wils Wilson

“By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes…” Or rather, something weird, in the form of the RSC’s latest production of Macbeth, directed by Wils Wilson in her RSC debut. Initially, things appear promising, with a suitably bizarre and supernatural opening on the misty Scottish moors in the company of three feral witches (Eilidh Loan, Dylan Read, and Amber Sylvia Edwards) thanks to Georgia McGuiness’s atmospheric set design, complete with dead birds falling from the sky. Sadly, the play almost immediately dissolves into something that feels underwhelming and confusing throughout.

In his RSC debut, Reuben Joseph is, unfortunately, a disappointing Macbeth. He doesn’t embody the spirit of a great war hero, which is what Macbeth is when we meet him – it is his prowess in battle that affords him the title of Thane of Cawdor, bestowed on him by Queen Duncan (Thérèse Bradley). He is also much more emotional, much earlier on – which makes it difficult to reconcile this more timid man with the one brave enough to commit his terrible crimes (goaded by his wife or not). Then, when the witches’ prophecy begins to turn nasty and Burnam Wood descends on Dunsinane, Joseph’s performance of a railing, angry Macbeth feels hollow, somehow – not helped by having him pause as if he’s forgotten his lines, and then take up a microphone during the famous ‘tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’ speech. A strange directorial choice!

Valene Kane’s Lady Macbeth is bizarre, almost infantile, from the outset – when we first meet her, she’s kicking her feet with glee in a rainstorm – so it doesn’t feel believable that she’s cold, calculating and frankly, clever enough to manipulate her husband into committing multiple murders, when she floats around the stage giggling and humming. It also jars with her descent into madness later on – because when we first meet her, one gets the sense she’s been part of the way there for some time!

And speaking of the murders – they are all entirely too bloodless, save for what appears to be red paint on the Macbeths’ hands (which remains throughout the entire play after the murder of Duncan, which is very distracting, despite what it might symbolise). Given how messy the murder of Duncan is meant to be (“how did the old woman have so much blood in her?”), and the throat-slitting of Banquo, it is underwhelming not to have these brutal acts realised fully on stage, particularly as the RSC has form for doing fantastic gore (Titus Andronicus, anyone?). The most striking moment of the production comes with the deaths of Lady Macduff and her children, with the three witches suspended above the action, screaming, screeching and wailing like banshees, accompanied by the sickening snap of neck bones. Disappointingly, Macduff’s (George Anton) response to the news of his family’s massacre feels so rushed and turns to anger so quickly that all the effort put into that previous scene feels wasted on such an underwhelming response.

Macbeth as a play is traditionally dominated by male characters, so the decision to cast women in a lot of these roles (Banquo, Duncan, Malcolm, Donalbain) is a commendable one. However, for this play, it doesn’t work, and it in fact takes away from Lady Macbeth’s character as a woman in a world surrounded by men, adopting their baser instincts and natures. It also makes for a confusing experience for the audience – not least when the actors of previously deceased characters return in other scenes in different guises. This is particularly confusing with regards to Fleance and Coll Macduff, both played by Liam King, and when the death of Young Siward is announced towards the end, with Siward played by the actress who had been Queen Duncan in the first half.

Much has been made of comedian Stewart Lee’s rewrite of what he calls the ‘rubbish’ Porter scene, but one could argue it’s only ‘rubbish’ if you don’t understand what its function is. Primarily, it is to instil in the audience the horror of Duncan’s murder and to drive home that the Macbeths’ castle has become, in effect, Hell itself, the knocking the relentless sound of impending doom. In Lee’s rewrite, we are wrenched from the dark horrors of the Macbeths’ castle and plonked into a mini stand-up routine by veteran Scottish actor Alison Peebles as the Porter, the ominous knocking replaced by a painfully sharp electric buzzing sound. Here, the Porter passes comment on the GCSE students in the audience, Tory MPs, and of course, Boris Johnson “and that mad woman with the…wallpaper!” With the play clocking in at two hours and 45 minutes (not including the interval), this feels like an indulgence that is entirely unnecessary and jars completely with the rest of the production.

This is felt in other aspects, too – there are what appear to be elements of old Scottish folklore weaved throughout and showcased through the costumes, and the interactions with the witches in particular, but these rub uncomfortably up against more modern aspects, including ugly trainers and characters running around in plastic raincoats alongside companions in furs and capes. The use of a gold curtain in later scenes to dictate the Macbeths’ castle feels too basic when coupled with electric lights and more modern elements, and these scenes in particular could have used stronger dressing to give them more structure when compared with the wild expanse of the moors. Julia Cheng’s movement and Kaitlin Howard’s fight choreography work well, particularly in the scenes with the witches and the final battle scene at Dunsinane. Macbeth and Macduff’s final confrontation is scrappy, desperate and dirty, culminating in a brutal bludgeoning – although this is largely hidden behind a curtain of black tassels, the noise sounding too far away from the audience to be truly involving.

Ultimately, this is a Macbeth that doesn’t know what it wants to be – does it want to be modern, or steeped in Scottish folklore and more supernatural, otherworldly elements? Does it want the audience to be horrified by the Macbeths’ awful acts of ambition, or laughing about our ex-PM? This is a confusing mishmash of a production, which feels like it’s had a lot thrown at it to try and make it ‘different’, but the end result truly leaves a lot to be desired.

Runs until 14 October 2023

The Reviews Hub Score

Confusing and underwhelming

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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  1. Totally agree with this review. It mentions all the points that we felt about the performance. Some poor directorial decisions, unbelievable casting and characterisation. The ensemble was entirely confusing. Not one of the company’s best .

  2. Phew! This theatre goer breathes a sigh of relief!

    As I sat through this performance I felt increasing distracted by many of the issues noted by the reviewer.

    The whole production felt it was trying too hard in all sorts of different directions. Many of the creative innovations jarred rather than illuminated. The director seemed to have given undue weight to the notion of collaboration with all of the other creatives and designers at the expense of thematic unity. I left feeling that creative ideas had been thrown into the witches cauldron producing a theatrical mish mash.

  3. The review is very accurate. Generally an underwhelming production with many confusing elements and some appear pointless.
    Have enjoyed many productions at the RSC, however this was not one of them.

  4. Couldn’t disagree more! The futuristic dystopian setting created the perfect atmosphere for this version of Macbeth. The ensemble work was powerful and the shifting dynamic between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth was really unsettling to watch. Reuben Joseph was amazing as Macbeth, unlocking a new vulnerability to the character that I haven’t seen before. The new porter scene was genius, while the structure of the speech didn’t change that much, the references were modernised to create the same comedic relief as the original Porter’s speech. I appreciate this version of the production might not appeal to everyone but it’s disappointing that this review is so negative and reduces such a complex performance to ‘confusing and underwhelming’.

  5. What a peculiar staging. There are some noteworthy moments – the initial emergence of the witches and the Macduff murders, for instance – but the time setting was confusing, at once ancient and futuristic.

    Some of the actors’ lines were lost against the cacophonous score (and, again, because they just weren’t delivered clearly). And Lady Macbeth would certainly have benefited from a firmer decision on whether she was supposed to be Scottish or Irish: she was both and, occasionally, neither.

    The reviewer is quite right to draw attention to the recycling of actors in different supporting roles: there is insufficient effort to differentiate between them, unfortunately.

    The few high points of the night include Anna Russell-Martin as Banquo and some quite outstanding musicianship. Like many people outside Scotland, though, I could do without the bagpipes.

  6. I agree with the reviewer: a good start then a strange, confused disconnection of emotion, text and plot. The production felt like it was constantly unravelling and being put back together rather than moving coherently in any direction. Banquo provided clarity and a degree of depth, and the witches were powerfully realised, but that was about it for us.

  7. I agree completely with the reviewer. I attended evening 2nd September really looking forward to finally seeing MacBeth and at the RSC, but I was left disappointed and frustrated at the production. In many parts it turned into farce and MacBeth should not be a comedy. The part I was looking forward to the most was completely ruined as the 3 witches around the cauldron morphed into screeching and incomprehensible wailing with no cauldron in sight and the scene was just ridiculous. The comedian as the porter was just unnecessary and there was no need for the profanity.

  8. A commendable review. I was asked my reaction as I left, my reply was “patchy”. Everything I felt was right about this production was mentioned in this review AND everything that I felt was wrong. I was sitting in row B and mentioned to the person sitting next to me that I was very aware of trainers! The re-write of the porter’s scene and the use of a microphone by Macbeth were both unnecessary and annoying and betrayed any tension that had been built. For the porter to say “he dies at the end” to the audience was just crass. I did see the gore splashed “Titus Andronicus” and agree more blood was needed here!

  9. I have been to the RSC twice. The first time was a bizarre production of Cymbeline, that had its moments, but… My second experience ended about an hour ago with an even more bizarre production of MacBeth. Its moments were the end. I don’t mean the fight between MacDuff and MacBeth.I mean the end as when it was over. Someday when I come back, all the way from the US, it would be interesting to see something like…I don’t know, maybe Shakespeare? The review here was spot on, actually, kinder than mine. The thing about MacBeth is, that it’s supposed to be a tragedy. This was just tragic. MacBeth was reduced to a sniveling (word I probably shouldn’t say here, so I will just think it). I have seen better High School productions of Shakespeare. The biggest question I have is why? Anyway, I’ve said my piece. I think I’m going to listen to Roger Waters new Dark Side of the Moon. No Floyd. No Gilmour leads. No soul.

  10. I think this is an accurate and fair review. I would also mention that for the most part the cast make a bit of a mess of the rhythm and dynamics on the text which is one of the main reasons it doesn’t work. Lady Macbeth is particular is way off. Macbeth is, surprisingly given his recent role in Hamilton is not close either. This misfiring flatness makes the whole thing tend toward tedium. The RSC have pretty much murdered a major tradegy and this production seems to bleed to death very slowly.

  11. My wife, not a great Shakespeare fan, came with me to see this play. We considered leaving after a few minutes. This was one of the worst productions I have ever seen, and and that’s saying something, the way the RSC has gone over the last few years! Katy Roberts’ excellent review hits the nail (several nails) on the head – this Macbeth was crass and confusing. Shoe-horning in that ridiculous stand-up routine was just bizarre, as was making a performance of ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow . .’ That speech, beautiful poetry though it is, should still be integrated in the play, not treated as something detached. I am totally in favour of gender and colour blind productions, and having Scottish accents was great; but there was a problem, and it had nothing to do with accents. Some of the actors’ diction was appalling. Specifically they failed to sound final consonants. (Where’s the voice coach?) For my wife and me, whose hearing is not of the best (and I’m sure I speak for other older people) this made much of it inaudible. Macbeth is not a long play, but this dragged on for over three hours. There was a lot of quite unnecessary stage business which often seemed to involve cavorting about and banging things! I understand that Directors, who have probably seen a play many times, want to do something different, but they should remember that many are coming to it for the first time. I wonder what those poor kids studying for an exam. took from this production? If you’re going to make changes make them for the better; and sometimes could we have productions a little more in keeping with what the author actually intended!

  12. I would have been crueller had I reviewed this version of Macbeth. My no. 1 criticism (and there are far more than one) would be the appalling diction – lines garbled and gobbled then drowned out by bashing props about, by running around the stage and turning one’s back to the audience. I reckon I grasped about one word in ten. I might as well have watched it in, say, French.

  13. I attended this production of Macbeth with excitement and high hopes today but sadly I was disappointed. I was drawn in by some aspects of the production but overall it was a confusing mish mash of ideas which didn’t enable me to empathise and appreciate each character and their contribution to the overall play. I was bemused by the role of Lady Macbeth who seemed to be part wood nymph with limited depth to the role of calculating partner and portrayal of guilt/grief. Other roles were similarly unbelievable sadly. I’m really sorry as I want to support RSC productions on the stage but for me this production was long, confused and overworked in its delivery and as a consequence I personally wasn’t able to appreciate the key emotions of the play.

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