Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon – until 18 September 2018
It is awkward that two major new productions of the Scottish Play, by two determinedly auteurish directors, open in the same month. Rufus Norris’ bleak “post-Brexit” apocalyptica at the National Theatre came first, and now Polly Findlay’s RSC version takes the Stratford stage. Double, double, toil and – yes – trouble.
Impossible not to compare the two: both modern dress, both strongly directorial in concept, both led by eminent actors – the seasoned Rory Kinnear at the NT, and here Christopher Eccleston, far newer to major Shakespeare. Both productions also share a taste for plastic baby dolls: at the NT dismembered and fixed to witches’ tummies, here carried by three witches who are for some reason small girls in pajamas and pom-pom bootees. The creepy chants become nursery impertinence, competently, but short on impact.
But if the Norris NT version was a graffiti Macbeth, scrawled on a pee-stained blockhouse, Findlay’s is more like one written in bold block capitals (which indeed are projected overhead, echoing significant lines). Its pace is unrelentingly staccato, emphatic, and with little variety of pace. Where Norris’s was all swagger and bash, this one is strut and fret.
Violence is largely offstage till the end, and it is mercifully free of decapitations. But there hangs about both productions a sort of dismayed ambition: a desire for modern relevance at all costs and resentment of tradition and of verse. Wrong to compare, I suppose, but I yearned back to the Michael Boyd production which launched this RSC theatre. With less fear of “historic” trappings, ironically it hit home with stronger human power.
Findlay has some interesting ideas: she picks up the play’s repeated mention of time, with a digital clock running inexorably backwards like a bomb timer on Spooks, from the moment of Duncan’s murder to the death of Macbeth. The flash-freeze LATER moments give impetus to the final battle. One very sharp perception too is that Lady Macbeth’s emotional deterioration is triggered by hearing the cries of Macduff’s murdered children relayed to her mobile phone (one can sometimes wonder why she loses it so abruptly).
But those are consolations. Mostly, the production suffers from one-note, race-the-clock vigour; Ecclestone’s delivery (with the sole exception of Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow) is a real problem: jerky, seeming actively hostile to the idea that it is a verse play. Even in soliloquy he seems to be fighting to prevent us recognising the familiar words or reflecting on their extraordinary painful depth : more The Bill than the Bard. Niamh Cusack is more at home with the text but plays Lady Macbeth hectic: an ambitious Rotary wife who never got over being captain of games. As a scold to her husband she is good, and the sleepwalking is finely done. But like her husband she is rarely allowed to express any of the the interiority of feeling, horror, determination and remorse which make the play so disturbing .
The only frisson of real feeling and arresting, affecting delivery is from Edward Bennett’s Macduff: the only one of the classic scenes which strikes properly home is his receiving the news of his family’s murder – his “What, all..?” is superbly shocking, with Luke Newberry’s fine public-schoolboy Malcolm crassly interrupting his grief to urge revenge.
As to Fly Davis’ set, it might be a concrete hall in a brutalist 1960’s college of further education, with a sharp rectangular gallery. You don’t feel that Macbeth wins any kingdom worth murdering for. The porter is an all-purpose janitor in white socks (Michael Hodgson does get a couple of laughs) and sits gloomily at the side throughout, delivering odd messenger lines or wandering round with a Bex-Bissel carpet sweeper.
Polly Findlay is an excellent director – BEGINNING, LIMEHOUSE, TREASURE ISLAND in London, an inventive Merchant of Venice in the big house here, two very good Renaissance plays in the Swan. But this is not her finest hour. And between them, the two March-beth openings make me cry “Hold, enough!” and hope that soon the pendulum will swing. And directors stop being scared of the Scottish Play and return to more reflective and respectful renderings . Meanwhile, the unfortunate A level set-book class of 2018 are at risk of associating it only with concrete, gaffer-tape, plastic dollies and carpet-sweepers.