Royal Shakespeare Theatre
4th June 2011
Madeline Appiah – Lady In Waiting
Jamie Beamish – Seyton; Porter
Howard Charles – Malcolm
Scott Handy –Ross
Aidan Kelly – Macduff
Caroline Martin – Lady Macduff
Des Mcaleer – Duncan
David Mcgranaghan – Edward The Confessor’s Doctor
Aislín Mcguckin – Lady Macbeth
Nikesh Patel – Donalbain
Daniel Percival – Lennox
Daniel Rose – Angus
Jonathan Slinger – Macbeth
Steve Toussaint – Banquo
Christopher Wright – Doctor
Director –Michael Boyd
Designer –Tom Piper
Music – Craig Armstrong
CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS, or rather production spoilers, so if you have tickets but haven’t been yet, stop here and read it afterwards. The surprises are strong, and best as surprises. If you haven’t got a ticket, you’ll be lucky to find one.
Watching any version of Macbeth conjures up the ghost of Macbeths past. There’s Sean Bean’s Hollywood populist Macbeth, with a big castle set, lots of clanking armour and erotic witches. There’s the Mafia Macbeth. There’s Polanski’s film. Orson Welles’ film. There’s the Japanese film Throne of Blood. Most recently for me, Patrick Stewart’s Stalinist Macbeth. The two that stick most in my memory are Bean and Stewart.
Bean’s sturdy, robust Macbeth as Braveheart was directed by Edwrd Hall in 2002, and I saw the first week in Milton Keynes, when he carried the aura of Lord of The Rings and garnered collective sighs from the girls’ school parties at every move. That was a rugged, medieval Macbeth with a Yorkshire accent , Ee bah gum, is that a dagger I see before me. With its big fight scenes, lots of eroticism from the witches and Lady Macbeth, it went down enormously well.
Rupert Goold’s 2007 Chichester production starred Patrick Stewart, who was seen humbly queueing with his tray in the theatre buffet with the punters before the show. That went to Broadway, then to film. That was set in a 1950s Stalinist state. Stewart was the best Macbeth I’ve seen.
The RSC chose Macbeth as one of the first productions in the rebuilt Royal Shakespeare Theatre, directed by Michael Boyd with Jonathan Slinger as Macbeth. You know before you get there this going to be good, and you know it’s going to pull out all the production stops.
The RSC programmes notes are the best you’ll find in any theatre, and it’s essential to sit down and read them before the plays. This one had a fascinating article on the reformation, and on how from the 1530s to the Jacobeans, the destruction of religious paintings and iconography were a major ongoing feature of British life. Wall paintings were literally “de-faced”. In 1530, nearly every parish church in England had a life-sized realistic crucified Christ in wood, much as you can still find in Spain and Austria. Not one has survived. Shakespeare’s father was involved in municipal edicts on church decoration and regalia (and according to some scholars, a case can be made that he was a closet “old Catholic.”) I wondered what this had to do with Macbeth.
Then you walk in. On set design (by Tom Piper), this Macbeth is the best of the lot. The set in the first half is a defaced church, with broken windows and paintings of saints with the faces scrubbed off. One religious statue remains in its niche. The other has been smashed out, leaving a jagged hole right through the wall. Before the play starts, the whole stage and set is lit with realistic daylight, so much so that we felt we’d walked outside when we walked into the theatre. Phew.
You would expect a big idea. You get it. The big idea in this is that the three weird sisters are three children, two boys and a girl. One of the most dramatic moments I’ve ever seen is their arrival, swinging from the air on meat hooks, as if on gibbets. It’s also just behind the expected scripted point, creating tension. So brilliantly are the child actors performing this that I thought they were puppets until one suddenly jerked to cue. The children get over the normal panto children projection problem by having concealed microphones and speaking with amplified echo. The big idea reveals itself to be bigger than you think. The three children appear again, in the same clothes, but now cleaner, as Lady MacDuff’s children, so that in retrospect, they are a projection back from the future (in sci-fi terms!) when Macbeth first encounters them. Some people had a problem with the logic of it all, but anyone who’s seen Back To The Future or a dozen movies with the same device has no problem with it.
The other part of the big idea is that the ghosts stay on. By the end, the ghosts of Lady MacDuff and her children are present in the background following the action. It’s the most powerful image in the play. The murder of Lady MacDuff and her children is truly horrible. They kill the boys, then a murderer leads the little girl away at knifepoint … ice travels up your spine. You know what happens to female children in war. The wife and children, with the murdered Banquo, become a permanent accusation. They’re the collateral damage in war. This is what makes this production so truly grim, and so truly 2011. Note how the programme illustration (above) superimposes a sad child’s face on Macbeth.
The ghosts being present solves the classic open stage Shakespeare problem. When characters are killed, the porter, dressed in red, opens the door at back centre, and the dead rise to their feet and solemnly walk through it. It’s a change from having all the deaths at the back, near the door so as to scramble off during the blackout.
The ‘banquet with Banquo’ scene straddles the interval, and utilises the device in Rupert Goold’s production. At the end of the first half, we see Macbeth’s view with the ghost of Banquo appearing before lights down, then after the interval we rewind two minutes and see it again from the guests point of view with no Banquo. Such a device would have perplexed audiences before the days of video recorders. The difference here, is that the guests are well away from Macbeth, standing, not part of a banquet really, and that Banquo slaughters Macbeth with buckets of blood before the interval. On the way out (to stand up away from the cramped RSC seating for 20 minutes), a father was explaining to his son that Macbeth was NOT actually dead, and that there would be a second half.
The style is strong. I’d call it actor-manager 19th century, in that the soliloquys are solo spots, centre stage, declaimed with eye contact to all three levels of the huge theatrical space. This is not just Macbeth either. Every major speech is given physical space, so that the listeners are often placed at the extreme four corners of the stage, geometrically. It’s a major contrast to most modern productions, where the reactive acting by the rest of the cast is a major addition to the text; see especially Cardenio the same week. On balance, it’s a style (Henry Irving?) that doesn’t resonate for me.
Macbeth and Lady Macbeth
Slinger is a cruel, nasty Macbeth. I can never get away from the text; Macbeth is a succesfully brutal soldier who’s just waded in gore before the play starts. That’s why you expect a big brute of a guy. Slinger is smaller, slighter than you’d expect, though he compensates with nastiness. One issue is that he’s nasty from the outset. You can’t believe that this guy would suffer pangs of guilt. After seeing two Macbeths where the early scenes with Lady Macbeth are charged with erotocism and taken in bed while writhing around too, this is a very low key Lady Macbeth from Aislin McGukin. She looks a suitably Celtic beauty, but the theme, the big idea of this production, the one you leave with, is women and children as collateral damage. Putting Lady Macbeth’s sexual powers at dominating her husband, and driving him to evil, to the fore would undermine this totally. The Macbeth / Lady Macbeth interaction, the centre of most productions, is sidelined here.
Macbeth, Lady Macbeth
Costumes are an issue. No one has done Macbeth in kilts and sporrans with claymores and Och, aye, the noo for years. The costumes are early 17th century boots, trousers and leather jerkins, Thirty Years War chic. Royalty get dressed in long white and gold robes, apparently from an earlier era. Duncan appears in white and gold and the Macbeths do once they’re enthroned.
Costume leads to a further point. The ethnicity of actors. We’re used to seeing a variety of ethnicity in Shakespeare. It’s usually colour blind (as it was in Cardenio, and The City Madam in RSCs 2011 season) in the sense that it’s irrelevant, which is what it should be. Some productions are TOO colour blind. I found a black Hamlet with a white Old Hamlet, Claudius and Gertrude disconcerting a few years ago. We are programmed with awareness of genetic inheritance (Ooh! She’s got her grandma’s hands!). If you accept that, then you’re aware that (say) having a black Hamlet, white Old Hamlet and Claudius but a black Polonius would automatically add a new level of speculation and incest that’s not supposed to be there. We’re not THAT colour blind. This production has a black dreadlocked Banquo, and his son, Fleance, is black too. So some thought has gone in. The lady-in-waiting, played By Madeleine Appiah does it with an African accent. Malcolm is played by Howard Charles, and Donalblain by Nikesh Patel. Howard Charles doesn’t look of especially Arab background in the programme, but in his big Malcolm speech, with his hair and beard very neatly trimmed, and a plain spotless white robe and shoes, he looked every inch the handsome Arab prince. The sort of guy with perfect English who the Saudis send to speak on government policy. This had to be deliberate reference to the Arab Spring, and indeed that change (as Malcolm says) might not be better. Malcom’s speech about how he might behave as king was done in full, and as a big soliloquy.
The big, well, only, comedy, scene in Macbeth is the porter scene, utilising comedy to separate the high tragedy of the murder. I truly believe that Shakespeare would use any device he could to get the audience going. But … the porter scene for me didn’t work. The cast list here is strange. Jamie Beamish is listed as ‘Seyton’ (Macbeth’s lieutenant), not as “The porter”, and later the porter escorts people to the underworld (Satan?) So Jamie Beamish, as the porter comes on with an Irish accent and throws open his coat to reveal himself as a suicide bomber with brightly coloured large fireworks strapped round him rather than dynamite. The audience interaction he gets up to with these is well-executed physical comedy. Everyone thinks ‘suicide bomber’ but the long coat, the Irish accent and the huge smile are I think references to James Coburn, as the Irish terrorist and dynamite expert in Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dynamite (aka, Duck, you sucker!)
James Coburn in A Fistful of Dynamite
Two problems though. Even after the acclaimed film Four Lions, you come out thinking, well, sorry, suicide bombers aren’t funny. Period. And Irish accented bombers are poor taste too. Was it part of the reference to modern war? The set as a defaced church was a Protestant v Catholic piece of history. The newspapers in Spring 2011 were full of sectarian bomb threats around Glasgow’s football clubs.
But if so, I don’t feel it worked. Also it clashes in mood too much. That led to another issue that should have been foreseen. The Irish-accented porter gives way to the Irish-accented MacDuff, and you think, ‘What? Why has everyone suddenly become Irish?’ In fact, we swore that Lady Macbeth lapsed into a couple of Irish-inflected lines right afterwards. Accents are catching on stage. No problem with the accent, but the disconcerting effect of the necessary juxtaposition should have been noted.
They use “flying” a lot. Some of it is stunning. Some of it is just showing off the new theatre. The music from three cellists seated above the stage (and remaining motionless when not playing) is a major feature.
The end effect is like a bad dream, disturbing images crossing over each other. The church mutates in part two, the broken windows are shuttered, wood panelling obscures the defaced saints. At the end the shutters open to reveal restored stained glass windows, and the saint statue has gone from its niche. I can’t quite follow the symbolism, but I’m sure the designer and director have something we’re supposed to get here (hence the long programme note).
It’s an important Macbeth, and one worthy of reopening our greatest theatrical space. It’s one that will be cited in discussions of future productions. There were bits I thought wonderful. The lack of electricity between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and the porter scene are minus points. I can feel the point of the demagogue soliloquys, but I’m not enamoured of the style.
Macbeth with James McAvoy, Trafalgar Studios, 2013