Wednesday 21 March 2018

Macbeth at the RSC - Review

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Polly Findlay

Niamh Cusack and Christopher Eccleston

Christopher Eccleston and Niamh Cusack lead a stylishly novel Macbeth that is likely to divide opinions. Set in modern times, Eccleston’s troubled Thane is palpably bewitched by the thought of gaining Scotland’s crown from the moment he first encounters the weird sisters. Eccleston captures the self-doubt and vacillation that ebbs away at Macbeth’s journeys both to and on the throne, delivering a clear interpretation of the fundamental flaws that corrode his character, from the moment he commits regicide until he in turn falls victim to it. The theme of time and moments is a strong pulse through the story of Macbeth and in this show, from Duncan's slaughter, an onstage digital clock counts the seconds down over a precisely measured two hours until Macbeth's death.

Eccleston may be good, but Cusack is sensational. Unsexed perhaps, early in Act One, but Cusack oozes a provocative, venomous sensuality throughout the first half that reminds one of a young Helen Mirren. Lady Macbeth’s soliloquies are amongst the play’s most powerful and Cusack dances through the verse. She is a joy to watch throughout – with her decline towards insanity sensitively and convincingly played out. A nod too for Fly Davis’ costume work on Lady M. Her couture (again, in the first half) is stunning and as a real life royal wedding looms, Davis’ dresses model a gorgeous contemporary chic, befitting British royalty in the 21st century.

Stanley Kubrick never made a film of Macbeth, but there are suggestions that Polly Findlay is doffing her cap firmly in the direction of Kubrick’s The Shining with this Stratford production. Remember those spooky twin girls in the Overlook Hotel’s elevator? Findlay has three primary school girls play her Witches and it’s an inspired decision. The lucky trio who scored the show’s press night were Elizabeth Kaleniuk, Aleksandra Penlington and Abigail Walter, all bringing a chilling sense of evil innocence to the plot’s infernal complexity. And then there’s the Porter, who’s usually confined to moments of comic relief after Duncan’s death. Here Findlay has him on stage virtually throughout, with Michael Hodgson imbuing this minor character with a further degree of supernatural wickedness and bearing an uncanny presence to Lloyd, The Shining’s bartender.

For the most part there is sound work in Findlay’s company, but some arrows fail to hit their mark. Edward Bennett’s Macduff offers a well crafted glance into grief as he learns of his family’s slaughter, but is too patrician and plummy to convince of his capacity for earthy, bloody vengeance. Likewise, more could be made of Raphael Sowole’s Banquo.

This is a modern, minimalist Macbeth (and one in which Lady M brilliantly uses a water cooler to help remove the damned spot). A glassed in raised platform offers glimpses of Glamis' privileged chatterati that could be straight out of The Ivy’s private dining room – while for those in the audience who may be struggling to keep up with the play’s themes. Findlay/Davis quirkily project key quotes from the text onto a screen above the performance space. The chosen words are not so much surtitles as potential essay titles, but with the text again forming a part of GCSE syllabi, there are likely to be many (secondary) school children in future audiences who will appreciate the gesture.

An imaginatively staged take on “the Scottish play” which, in its leading roles, is stunningly performed. All in all a bloody, good, Macbeth.

Where you can see Macbeth
Runs in Stratford upon Avon until 18th September 2018
Runs at the Barbican Theatre, London from 15th October 2018 until 18th January 2019
Broadcast live in cinemas on 11th April 2018

Photo credit Paul Stuart (c) RSC

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