Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon – until 18 September 2018
Polly Findlay pulls out all the stops for her visually enticing production of Macbeth for the Royal Shakespeare Company. The cursed Scottish play has been exerting its influence over the country’s major theatres with the National’s gloomy, eco-friendly, show starring Rory Kinnear and a lot of used black plastic sheeting, getting a roasting.
But the RSC’s version, starring Christopher Eccleston and Niamh Cusack as the murderous Macbeths, fares better. It’s not perfect. Eccleston, a rather thuggish thane, looks ill at ease and sounds uncomfortable with the speeches, his mouth over-emphasising every Shakespearean sentence.
But the production as a whole works well with some nice touches and a few distractions from Findlay. She bigs up the role of Hell’s gatekeeper, The Porter, and Michael Hodgson is so superbly sinister and riveting that it is impossible to take your eyes off him.
Scenes are being played out centre stage in the vast Royal Shakespeare Theatre and your gaze wanders to the back where he is chalking on its walls, trying to keep a tally of the dead and doomed. Frankly, I don’t think he has enough brickwork.
For a long time, he haunts the water cooler, benignly observing, watching with indifference the sudden and extreme power-plays from Scotland’s bloodiest leaders.
It’s clear that Findlay is a big fan of schlock horror movies. The Porter is straight out of central casting for weirdos, and the sort of parts that used to go onscreen to the eccentric Crispin Glover.
Hodgson, oily hair slicked down, clothes too short and wearing a red plastic watch that initiates a large digital countdown clock above the stage, frequently wipes away the saliva from his mouth with a sideways swipe, or pats down a stray hair. Both menacing and cruelly comical, less drunk with alcohol and more with unholy power and precognition, here he is not so clownish and all the better for it.
The second major distraction is that clock. Why didn’t it start at the commencement of the play? Why so prominent? I found my eye wandering up to it as the drama progressed.
But it plays a huge part, coupled with initially imperceptable sound effects, in a thrilling finale which has you on the edge of your seat. Very filmic, very Tarentino, and superbly timed.
The production’s weaknesses, for me, come right at the start with the decision to cast the witches as three little girls, dressed in onsies and slipper boots, who looked as forbidding as..well, the neighbour’s six-year-old.
Why would a burly and bloodied soldier be so terrified? They were hardly Carrie’s or Carol Anne’s.
Eccleston is credible as a soldier, his muscular build and weathered face perfectly suited to hand-to-hand bloody conflict.
But he appears overwhelmed by the demands of acting to a live audience with some of Macbeth’s major speeches prompting titters in the audience rather than rapt attention.
Cusack makes a lively and, unusually, vulnerable Lady M.
I was initially baffled by Findlay setting the play in what appears to be the late 1970s/ early 1980s.
It’s not a very glamorous decade and most of the cast look like they have been kitted out at C & A or BHS.
Poor Edward Bennett, as Macduff, is particularly burdened with the boring accountant look, and it seems to drain his character of life.
But, what the era does offer is an explanation for Lady Macbeth’s sudden mental decline, with the provision of a harrowing recording on a Walkman.
Bennett, who always rises to the occasion at the RSC, only has one major speech and it is powerfully delivered.
What is unconscionable is the reaction of Luke Newberry’s Malcolm at hearing about the slaughter of Macduff’s family.
While Bennett acts his socks off Malcolm stands there, hands in his pockets, showing no emotion whatsoever. And we back him to be king? Humph. A bit of compassion wouldn’t go amiss.
Fly Davis’s design which includes flickering neon lighting, a letterbox mezzanine which robs the cast of their clear voices, and huge quotations above, that offers up the production almost in chapter form, isn’t for purists but I rather liked it.
There is more than a nodding reference to horror movies which is inevitable. Can there be a more gory Shakespearean thriller (okay, perhaps Titus Andronicus)?
Macbeth’s get-together with the grey ghosts that have been slain by both he and his henchmen, is pure gallows humour.
And the reaction to his wife’s death is chilling and manic, a final, visual, acknowledgement at how unbalanced and unhinged he has become.
His final scenes, fighting a battle to the death with distraught penpusher, Macduff, is accompanied by the beat of a heart, in the last throes of existence, and falling snow. I was mesmerised.