Macbeth – Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Polly Findlay

Reviewer: Katy Roberts

Macbeth, both the play and the titular character, is obsessed with time, and this theme looms large throughout Polly Findlay’s modern-dress production of Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy. From the moment the digital clock sparks into life at the back of the stage, one becomes acutely aware that Macbeth and his wife are two people descending into oblivion, sacrificing their futures for a blood-soaked present that is electric with panic as their decision to kill their King sets in motion a series of events that ultimately spirals wildly out of control.

Christopher Eccleston makes his debut here as Macbeth, alongside Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) veteran Niamh Cusack. Eccleston’s is a strong performance, both literally and figuratively. This works well in the opening and closing scenes, where we see Macbeth the soldier, but unfortunately, there is little light and shade in-between. Everything feels loud, aggressive, and somewhat rushed – the famous line, “is this a dagger I see before me?” lacks the quiet nuance needed to signal a shift in Macbeth’s mental state, as the gravitas of the heinous crime he and his wife have committed hits home. Eccleston rattles through some of the lines so quickly they are difficult to catch and make sense of before he moves onto the next speech. This is not to say it is a bad performance, far from it; Eccleston has a commanding stage presence, and perhaps this is a rôle he will ease into as the run progresses – but it is difficult to reconcile the idea of his Macbeth needing to be guilted and manipulated into action by his wife, when this performance suggests he is capable of doing it all on his own.

Niamh Cusack’s Lady Macbeth stands in stark contrast to her husband. This is a woman who has glimmers of madness streaked across her soul right from the very beginning, so it is utterly believable that the murder she commits has the potential to send her spectacularly off the rails. It is interesting to note, when considering both performances together, that the usual weakness of Macbeth and the masculine strength of Lady Macbeth appear reversed here somewhat; this Lady Macbeth is more fragile, and Macbeth more steely than in other incarnations. However, when Lady Macbeth’s infamous manipulative streak rears its head, the flashes of fury electrify the stage, making this a hugely memorable performance.

The decision to cast the three witches as young children (Elizabeth Kaleniuk, Aleksandra Penlington and Abigail Walter in the Press Night performance), in red-spotted onesies and slipper boots gives the production a distinctly horror-movie feel, à la The Shining. Christopher Shutt’s atmospheric sound design works wonderfully here, giving the witches a sinister, unpredictable edge through the use of an echo. Michael Hodgson’s Porter is similarly unnerving, providing light relief one moment, only to then remind us of the massacre happening within Macduff’s castle walls after Macbeth orders the slaughter of his rival and his “wife, his babes, and all unfortunate souls that trace him in his line” – by silently carving a tally of the rising body count in chalk along the walls until the red brick is turned white. Edward Bennett’s performance as Macduff, when he is told of the death of his wife and children, is devastating; his disbelief at the news – “all my pretty ones? All?”, repeated over and over again – is so gut-wrenching that for several minutes, it feels as though the clock on the wall behind has stopped and time has come grinding, sickeningly, to a horrifying halt.

Ultimately, it is this heinous crime that rockets the play towards its bloody conclusion, as “Burnam Wood comes to Dunsinane”. The play’s final moments continue the feeling of rising dread that has seeped into every fibre of the play with a tableau of Malcolm (Luke Newberry, in his RSC debut) – son of the slain King Duncan – being crowned. He is watched by Fleance (Hector Magraw) – the returned son of Banquo (Raphael Sowole) – who fled after his father’s murder – and the three witches, who repeat their opening warning – “something wicked this way comes”. The digital clock that counted down to the demise of Macbeth and his wife for the last two hours suddenly resets, and the realisation dawns that the tragedy is doomed to begin all over again.

Polly Findlay’s Macbeth is a chilling production, with a pace that rattles by much faster than its two and a half hour runtime might suggest. Superbly clever touches – the digital clock countdown, the child witches, and the aforementioned tally all serve to create a piece that is slick, stylish, and full of eerie symbolism. The performances are wonderful, particularly those of Edward Bennett and Niamh Cusack – and Christopher Eccleston gives a strong debut performance – although ironically, in a play so heavily symbolic about time, it might be better served if delivered at a slightly less breakneck pace.

Runs until 18 September 2018 | Image: Richard Davenport (c) RSC

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