Review: ‘Macbeth’ @ The Royal Shakespeare Theatre

I love ‘Macbeth’, it ranks up there with my favourite Shakespeare plays, and finding out Christopher Ecclestone was playing the titular character was the final drop of incentive I needed to book my tickets to see the RSC’s latest production of The Scottish Play.

And Ecclestone was fantastic: brooding, conflicted, frustrated, fearful – he did it all and seamlessly so. It was post-crowning that the role really took flight; Ecclestone’s portrayal of ambition fearfully achieved was convincing and gripping, something to keep you on the edge of your seats (dangerous when you’re in the high ones like we were) until the bitter end.

Lady Macbeth…I was less convinced. Don’t get me wrong, overall Niamh Cusack was good, but I felt like a decision hadn’t been made over whether she was power-hungry, insane or simply overly-emotional. If a route had been picked it might have been easier to figure out why she pushed Macbeth as she did, but it seemed like neither of them wanted to ‘o’erleap’ their ‘vaulting ambition’, which is the sole purpose of Lady Macbeth in Macbeth’s mental torment: pushing him over the edge. I think it was most apparent following Duncan’s murder: one moment Lady Macbeth was the ‘unsexed’ woman, bloody, bold ad resolute, and the next she seemed to be blaming Macbeth for being so foolish. I couldn’t quite place what Lady Macbeth wanted, and I found that a little difficult to follow. However, the classic sleepwalking scene was outstanding, as was Lady Macbeth’s role in the banquet scene, so there were definite peaks and troughs.

The setting and scenery were used well, particularly where the (spectacular!) Porter was concerned (that blummin’ vacuum cleaner!!). Everything had a place and if something was unnecessary, it wasn’t used. The only mild (and I mean mild!) criticism I had was that the perspex box above the stage where the characters were during the post-war celebrations, where Lady Macbeth heard Macduff’s son’s cries and then sleepwalked through, wasn’t viewable from the second tier; I can’t imagine what it was like on the third. This was a shame because it literally needed a foot more glass and it would have been successful, and I did feel like we missed out on some key aspects of the performance.

Standout moments? The Porter was an absolute scream, punctuating the madness with stark reality and a reminder of life continuing in darkly humorous ways – he was a character used well throughout the play, not just in his one key speech like in other productions. He really did make me shiver when cleaning up after gruesome moments (like the Macduff massacre – a terrifying moment that was captured brilliantly by mother and son alike, and making her pregnant? Awful but a stroke of genius for the tragedy of Macbeth).

Another moment had to be the ghost scene with Banquo: the fact that no ghost appeared in Macbeth’s first rantings first of all had me going ‘what?!’ and then I saw it as brilliant; you got to see what the diners saw, before seeing what Macbeth saw when the ghost finally made his ethereal, terrifying appearance. I loved it, and it was one of my favourite production moments of the whole performance.

And I loved loved loved the clock. Another Porter moment of genius setting a stopwatch, the tension (and a moment where you blinked and thought ‘blimey, where did the time go?!’) mounted and Macbeth’s doom crept closer; it was a silent reminder that the truth will out and wrongs will be righted, and I loved how understanding it was.

Finally, I have to reflect on what once was; in the 2011 Macbeth at the RSC, one of my favourite choices was having the Weird Sisters as children dangling from the heavens speaking down to the cursed Macbeth, and a similar concept was attempted this time, but I wasn’t convinced by the kids in onesies with teddy bears I’m afraid; they were too cutesy to be wicked, and looked too snuggled up to cause real harm, so I couldn’t believe in their ill-will sadly. They were a little better in the second half, particularly when complemented with the dead cast members as the Prophecies, but overall it wasn’t the choice for me.

In what is overall a haunting performance with a killer cast, ‘Macbeth’ is encoring at cinemas soon and plays at the RSC throughout May, and is definitely worth catching while it’s around – Ecclestone and co. overall produce a fascinatingly dark demise of a former hero for you to sink your teeth into.

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Review: ‘Hamlet’ @ the Royal Shakespeare Theatre

‘Hamlet’: the play everyone quotes without realising. Ever told someone the dog will have his day? Or to thine own self be true? ‘Hamlet’. It explains its profundity and its endurance through history, and why it’s still one of my favourite Shakespeare plays.

The RSC last performed ‘Hamlet’ in 2013, and I was fortunate enough to see the fantastic Jonathan Slinger in the dark role. However, sling your hook Slinger – there’s a new Dane in town, in this deliciously colourful version of the darkest play going.

Paapa Essiedu is at once a young man and soul older than his years; a man who can laugh and play with friends, causing unexpected mirth amongst the audience and making us remember this is someone barely out of education dealing with a tragedy beyond his ken, and yet a man who can give the gravitas to such infamous thoughts as whether ‘to be or not to be’ with gusto. He was at once energetic and dragged down, frenetic yet depressive, twitching yet still inside. Essiedu is a prince on the rise, and if this isn’t the start to an epic career at the RSC I’ll be hugely surprised – he beats Tennant’s hailed Hamlet hands down.

The set and setting were outstanding; to have ‘Hamlet’ as such a bright and colourful event was jarring in the best possible way, showing the real torments of the world Hamlet had to endure. The use of an all-black cast was inspired, showing ‘Hamlet’ to transcend race and culture, and become a play accessible to all.

There wasn’t a weak member amongst the cast, and it’s hard to pick stand outs. I could have cried when Natalie Simpson’s Ophelia lost her mind, especially when screaming horrendously at Gertrude (Tanya Moodie) before being quiet and meek – the role has never been performed move movingly to my eyes. Laertes too, was the most caring brother I have seen in ‘Hamlet’ thus far – I’ve often thought when Laertes declares he’ll give no more tears to one already drowned after Ophelia’s death, it lacks compassion. Marcus Griffiths was not that actor; his denial of tears was difficult, it was a struggle, and it showed him as the caring man his father’s death had set him out to be. Polonius (Cyril Nri) was hysterical as the windbag, and Claudius (Clarence Smith) the perfect blend of ambitiously corrupted and broken.

One thing that happened that I’ve never seen before was Gertrude saw the ghost. This was the moment where I questioned decisions, wondering how the next lines of denial could be spoken, and yet Moodie’s Gertrude was captivating: the bedroom scene became a moment of mother and son united yet divided simultaneously, showing Gertrude making a choice to deny her son’s rationality and use his madness to protect herself. It was unique and well-considered, and made the known play a new experience.

And the end – tragic, devastating and heartstopping. I’m not exaggerating when I say I haven’t seen such a well-choreographed fight scene in my theatrical history; it was flawless without looking overly-rehearsed or like the actors were holding back. And, yet again, a new twist on an old classic in how the fatal blows were dealt, making the excitement as palpable as Hamlet’s hit.

There is just so much to compliment and rave about in this play it could send me mad – a fitting touch for a play so connected with its audience it was literally breathtaking. ‘Hamlet’ plays until the 13th August 2016, and though something be rotten there, visiting the state of Denmark (via Stratford-Upon-Avon) would be a wise choice in this latest RSC masterpiece.

 

 

 

 

Review: ‘Hamlet’ at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre

‘Hamlet’, without a doubt, is my favourite Shakespeare play, probably because of how much of it translates to today enabling it to show the timelessness of the Bard’s work. Even at the end, my friend and I were commenting on how many of today’s sayings we didn’t realise or had forgotten originated in ‘Hamlet’, a particular one for me being ‘to thine own self be true’.

 

Obviously the last hype over ‘Hamlet’ was the astounding performance by David Tennant, which I only got to witness on DVD sadly. A lot was resting on Jonathan Slinger’s shoulders as the latest incarnation presented by the RSC, and he did not disappoint. I always think the beauty of Shakespeare is that there are little to no stage directions, and the RSC always takes full advantage of this (not always successfully as I found with ‘Titus’ a few weeks ago, but certainly so here). Slinger came on stage almost like an old man, certainly not what I thought Hamlet would be. Then suddenly, he transformed into this man gripped by the obsession of revenge, turning him into a younger, more lithe man in the process. Before going in, we were discussing whether we thought Hamlet was actually mad or not by the end of the play, something with which I disagree: Slinger’s performance made me question my original perspective, so intense was his performance of insanity as the scheming prince. It was a welcome challenge, showing how differently the play could be interpreted and how no one version could ever really be an ‘accurate’ portrayal as such.

Likewise, I’d never imagined some of the other interpretations as such before. Gertrude went from the pliable wife and mother to a hard-nosed character; every line had an element of exasperation and anger towards her son’s refusal to move on and accept his father’s death (and towards buffoon Polonius!). Her hard exterior crumbled in the bedroom scene with Hamlet, turning her from a two dimensional object to someone with emotions and who actually felt the enormity of her first husband’s death and her son’s rage. Claudius (Greg Hicks) surprised me at one point by showing his softer side in the scene where Ophelia hands out flowers in her madness, with his tone showing his dire sympathy at her being a casualty of his intellectual war with Hamlet. Ophelia herself became more than a victim in her interactions with Hamlet, particularly the moments where speech was absent and you saw passion and anger come through more clearly than perhaps they do with the words alone.

The only disappointment for me was Laertes. His initial leaving was fine and easily dealt with, but his return was so lacklustre it was a struggle to see why he had any problem with Denmark, and it was only due to Claudius and Hamlet that we saw how he fitted into events. There was little anger, his remorse was stiffly portrayed, and his grief over Ophelia was pitiful in itself. Nothing seemed to bother this man, and it wasn’t clear why he chose to continue fighting Hamlet and why he would contest the leadership of Denmark. My friend’s young daughter actually didn’t pick up on Claudius manipulating Laertes’ return because of this, so it was disappointing that the climax was marred by this slight underperformance.

Effects were also well played; my particular favourite was how the Ghost was dealt with, with the lighting and music literally making the hairs on the back of my neck prickle, it was so haunting to watch this creature with his helmet make his way towards the central action that it meant when Hamlet finally got his audience with the Ghost the enormity of the moment was felt. A bizarre ending was also a shocker of a way to end, with alarm bells ringing (considering the fire alarm went off when I went to see ‘Macbeth’, also starring Slinger, I was almost heading for the door!) and rain pouring down. Once I’d decided not to flee the building, it was a suitably dramatic ending for a play based almost entirely on words and overthinking – the intensity was finally burst in an act of catharsis.

I was glad at the end that, for a brief moment, Jonathan Slinger came back on stage alone. His performance, as is probably true with most Hamlets, was the glue that held the performance together, and he was astounding. To be that intense and working at such a furious pace throughout is (ironically) an insane challenge, and one he rose to magnificently; move over Tennant, there’s a new Prince in town.

Review: ‘Macbeth’ @ Royal Shakespeare Theatre

Jonathan Slinger as Macbeth

Despite a fire alarm trying its best to halt the performance of ‘Macbeth’ at the RST, nothing was able to stop this absolutely breathtaking performance of one of Shakespeare’s most renowned plays.

The characterisations were all spot on: Macbeth (Jonathan Slinger) was both scared and lustful of the power awaiting him, whilst Lady Macbeth (Aislin Mcguckin) was brilliantly ferocious and manipulative. Lady Macbeth was, for me, fantastically portrayed: she was the source, strength and support of Macbeth’s power, and the only tragedy regarding her was that she died offstage, which I’ve always thought to be one of the travesties of ‘Macbeth’, as it does not do this fierce and strong woman justice, nor does it reflect the descent she faces in the wake of her wicked deeds, particularly after her handwashing frenzy had built her mental state to a dramatic climax.

Macbeth himself was perfect: he moved from benevolent to destructive convincingly, and his mental agitation was portrayed so as to justify his movement between the two. This was particularly well done either side of the interval: the scene where Macbeth confronts Banquo’s ghost was done with Banquo in sight before the interval, and then again without Banquo after the break, to show how Macbeth appeared in ghostly and real terms. Equally, Banquo (Steve Toussaint) was a brilliant balance to Macbeth, showing the positive lineage of the prophecies to contrast to Macbeth’s downfall.

The highlight of the production, though, was how it was altered from a witches story, to a ghost story: the use of children instead of witches, and the later inclusion of these children in Macbeth’s destruction, was absolutely stunning, and one of the most moving moments of any play I’ve seen. The deaths of these children and Lady Macduff (Caroline Martin) were absolutely heartbreaking, which was particularly enhanced by Lady Macduff’s screams of desperation when she could not act to save her family. The use of the ghosts, haunting the play until its just resolution, was a genius idea, changing the play from one of spectacular magic to one of ethereal hauntings to build tension until the climax of action.

The use of the cellos was another welcome addition to the play, as it followed the tension until the end, building the play towards its final note of resolution. The only trifling issue with these was, occasionally, it was difficult to hear the actors above the music, but this wasn’t a frequent problem as the actors clearly knew how to work their stage.

The conclusion to each characters life, through the doorway to heaven or hell, was wonderfully planned, so as to send everyone to the same place but not the same fate, and provide a definitive ending. Also, the rebuilding of the stage, moving from the ruins of the beginning, to the reconstruction of the stain-glass windows by the ending and removal of signs of destruction, was a powerful visual image, providing scenic as well as dramatic resolution and restoration. It was an elegant touch, and definitely succeeded in providing an aesthetic realm to Macbeth’s tragedy.

There is literally little fault to find with the RSC ‘Macbeth’: it was beautifully acted, and filled to bursting with emotion, so as to sweep you along in the tide of Macbeth’s reign. Although helpful hint if you book tickets: avoid the first three rows, that Reverend enunciates to the point of spitting several feet!!