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: ‘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!!