Barbican Theatre, London – until 18 January 2019
Watching the RSC’s latest production of Macbeth I began to wonder if the production designer is a fan of Ivo van Hove given the number of reminders I had of Kings of War and Roman Tragedies. And then there was the water-cooler to wonder about and what that signified but I’ll come back to that.
First the Van Hove ‘references’; think digital timers, notching up murders and actors in glass-walled rooms performing with the help of microphones – the sound was a little muddy. Even the set styling, what little furniture there was had a hint of European mixed with dull 1960s office reception (cheap chairs and pot plants).
Onto this backdrop is injected two manic Macbeths, three primly-dressed, sweet-smiling girls and gore-soaked murder victims. Christopher Eccleston’s Macbeth immediately strikes as a loud, manly, muscular military leader. When he has his moment of doubt about his wife’s plans it is the barest of wobbles and displayed almost as a physical reaction.
When Lady Macbeth (Niamh Cusack) accuses him of being unmanly the words are powerful insults that easily goad him into action after which murder comes with a desperate ease but for the bloody corpses that haunt him.
Lady Macbeth has matching energy. When she reads her husbands account of the weird sisters’ prophecy she is almost beside herself with excitement. The descent into madness comes as little surprise as if they were already teetering on the edge.
Having young girls play the weird sisters is a nicely sinister touch with their neat plaits, smart red dresses and a horror-film ability to turn and glare in unison.
Coupled with the rest of the children of the story (Fleance and the Macduff clan) there is an almost constant reminder of the Macbeth’s lack of family.
The portrayal of the porter (Michael Hodgson) is also a nice touch.
He’s a constant presence on stage, acting as a chorus as he chalks up Macbeth’s murders and casually cleans at the most horrifying moments as if he has seen it all before.
Niamh Cusack and Michael Hodgson in Macbeth. Photo by Richard Davenport © RSC
He is the opposite to the Macbeths, unemotional almost to the point of boredom which brings an ironic humour to the play.
But is it also ironic that the most emotionally powerful scene of the play comes in a rare moment of silence and stillness, a scene when the Macbeths are nowhere to be seen?
Water cooler moment
Which leaves me with the water cooler.
It fits the office look, serves as a place for one or two characters to get a drink of water – and where Lady Macbeth can wet her hands to ‘wash away the spot’.
No-one stands around it chatting but if they were, what would they say? ‘Those Macbeths are a bit bonkers aren’t they?’
I’d say I was more interested in the background characters than in the protagonists; their intensity gets a bit tiring after a while and I’d have liked just one or two more gear changes in the emotional pace.
I’m giving it ⭐️⭐️⭐️ 1/2 and its two hours and 25 minutes long with an interval. Catch it at the Barbican where it is running in rep as part of the RSC’s winter season until 18 Jan.
Some other Macbeths I’ve seen:
Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff, National Theatre – Cold, brutal dystopian and disappointing
James McAvoy’s Macbeth – First thoughts and a more detailed review.
Factory Theatre’s Macbeth – Church halls, tights and holding hands.
Jonathan Slinger/RSC/2011 – Bloody Macbeth (and child witches).
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