Barbican Theatre, London – until 18 January 2019
In contrast to Rufus Norris’ Macbeth at the National, with Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff, the RSC’s current production is focused and direct. This ensures that it is more of a success, but also proves its weakness. Polly Findlay’s production is certainly the more coherent and features strong leads.
Christopher Eccleston, making his RSC debut, is a warrior through and through. Since the Stratford run he has lost his beard and appears even more like the kind of man you would not like to run into in a dark glen. He radiates physicality, self-assurance and an ability to confidently misread a situation. David Acton plays Duncan as an aged and capricious, wheelchair-bound king, an annoying and eminently murderable figure. He snubs Macbeth in the act of congratulating him, lavishing the greater praise on Macduff whom he clearly prefers. Eccleston steps forward expectantly as he names his successor, and the combined disappointments lead directly to what follows.
If this seems a little directive, it is. Findlay leaves nothing to chance and, as a result, a significant amount of subtlety is stripped from the play. Macbeth is short but layered, difficult to do well because there is no space to recover. Therefore, the device of placing a digital clock on stage that counts down from Duncan’s murder to Macbeth’s death, undermines the actors, as well as proving highly distracting to the audience. It is a case of show not tell.
The advertised pace has a problematic effect on performances, not least Niamh Cusack’s Lady Macbeth. While highly watchable, as always, Cusack seems hampered by the decision to play the character as wired and manic from the very start. She appears more unhinged than calculating, leading ultimately to a great deal of rushing around the stage during the sleepwalking scene, which reduces its impact.
Eccleston delivers a highly creditable performance, once which is in many ways a success. However, it too is limited by an uncomplicated style. As his plans implode, he becomes mocking and fatalistic, and delivers the ‘brief candle’ speech as a piece of deep sarcasm, driving any ambiguity or wider resonance from the speech, a moment of connection beyond the play from a character who is, at least in this version, entirely unsympathetic. Findlay’s idea of a cycle of violence, implying at the very end that Fleance will continue the line of tyranny, also seems strange, implying that there is nothing that special about the Macbeths after all – sacrificing the gimlet gaze of the play for a much vaguer message.
However, the director’s sometimes scattershot invention includes some effective touches. In a strange echo of Norris’ Macbeth, the Porter (Michael Hodgson) is also a Geordie and also appears throughout. He is a murderer and a general overseer of the action, chalking up deaths on the wall or, seated next to a water cooler, just watching. He is truly sinister. Edward Bennett’s Macduff is a bureaucrat not a soldier, making his eventual agony the more powerful. The witches are played by three young girls who, Shining-style, are dressed identically and speak in unison, which both connects to horror film tropes and works in its own right. Background scenes take place behind a glass screen in an upper gallery which, as in Robert Icke’s Hamlet, underlines the psychological alienation of the main character. Strong performances throughout also include Mariam Haque’s Lady Macduff, furious at her husband’s betrayal, and Raphael Sowole as a ragged and powerful Banquo. Findlay’s production is a enjoyable evening, with much to admire, but sells the play somewhat short.