Macbeth – June 2007

3/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Conall Morrison

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 21st June 2007

I found this a very ramshackle production. There were some interesting ideas, and some good performances, but it didn’t work satisfactorily as a whole. I felt disinterested and often bored, which I don’t experience too often at the RSC.

There was a scene inserted at the start which I presume was intended to give focus and meaning to the whole production. To begin with, there were a number of chairs placed on the stage in rows, with one on its side. At the start, the doors at the back opened, and with much screaming, yelling and clashing of swords, various people rushed onto the stage, some pulling carts. The men grabbed the chairs, and piled them up as a barricade against the doors, while the women got the wagons into a circle… sorry, wrong genre. The women hid behind the carts as best they could. To no avail. The marauding forces under Macbeth forced the doors open, and Macbeth himself took on and killed the men, then turned his attention to the women and children. We could see he was barely alive, in that his humanity had been squashed out of sight by all the killing he had endured, and although he held one of the babies quite tenderly for a while, he still wrung its neck without compassion.

It was a powerful scene, and in many ways it promised well for the rest of the performance, but even so, I found myself wondering, in the midst of all this emotive force, where does he go from here? This Macbeth has none of “the milk of human kindness” left in him. There’s nothing in his life but senseless slaughter – he’s an empty shell. He’s already at “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…”, yet the rest of us are three hours away from it. It would take some masterstroke to connect the dots to give us a satisfying explanation of this character’s journey from here, and sadly, we didn’t get one. There were some good bits to the central performance, true, but overall the range was limited and the verse-speaking not quite up to the job. Lots of energy, but not enough detail – “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

The opening scene hadn’t quite finished, however. The three women that Macbeth had killed, jerked alive again after he’d gone. I had suspected this might happen – come on, three women, in Macbeth, can’t just be coincidence. Sure enough, these lately deceased became the three weird sisters, and their motivation was plain and stark – they wanted revenge for their slaughtered children. Steve saw them as avenging angels, though not necessarily heavenly ones, and that’s a good image. They thoughtfully removed the bodies, which allowed the rest of the action to continue, but they did linger over it, and I felt the first intimations of the boredom that was to become all too familiar during the evening.

Next up was the pirate king. You don’t remember him from Macbeth? Well, he’s called Duncan, and David Troughton played him in what Steve reckoned was a West Country accent with Scottish moments, long straggly hair, and a leather coat. What else were we meant to think? I had to work hard to stifle a fit of the giggles at this point, because the wounded soldier who arrived to tell the King what had happened was speaking with one of the worst Scots accents I’ve heard in a while. It wasn’t helped by the fact that some of the cast were putting on a Scottish accent, some had Caribbean inflections, the Irish contingent apparently felt their own brogue to be sufficiently Scots-like not to bother, and we had a Welsh second murderer. Most of the black actors chose the West Indian/African route, so it was doubly surprising to hear one of their number attempt a comedy version of the Scottish accent. I barely suppressed my giggles, but suppress them I did. I have no idea why these choices were made – we could tell from the post-show yesterday that the actors mostly weren’t using their own accents, so it had to be a deliberate decision. (At least it helps to explain why David Troughton kept correcting himself when referring to “English” actors in the post-show.)

The scene where the three witches greet Macbeth was fine, nothing special to report. The women left through the back door, which Macbeth and Banquo were apparently oblivious to. Likewise the arrival of Ross and Angus to inform Macbeth that the first prophecy has come true was also OK, but added nothing to my understanding of the play. Duncan’s thanks to Macbeth and Banquo were fine, and Macbeth did at least register well his shock at hearing Malcolm created heir to the throne.

I’ve never quite understood exactly when Macbeth wrote the letter he sends to Lady Macbeth. He’s riding furiously to prepare for Duncan’s arrival chez lui, yet he manages to knock off a reasonably lengthy letter (Lady Macbeth is obviously part-way through when we first see her), and the postman’s quicker than he is. This is one time when text-messaging would seem to be the answer, but sadly they didn’t have it in those days. Anyway, next up was Lady Macbeth and the letter, and boy, was she good. Derbhle Crotty managed to get across a sense of an ordinary woman gone seriously bad. No histrionics, nothing over the top, just plain negativity focused and concentrated. Her invocation was very grounded and, as she spoke her final lines, and with Macbeth appearing in the doorway behind her, she froze with her eyes wide and staring, as if her later madness was already within her. Which of course it was.

Duncan’s arrival was again average, and this time my view of Lady Macbeth was blocked by all the entourage standing about, so I felt my attention slipping again. Macbeth’s soliloquy “If it were done” was OK, but with one very good piece of interpretation, given this production’s focus on the personal: for “we still have judgement here”, there was a long pause before the “here”, and as he said it, he placed his right hand on his heart, indicating that his own conscience was what he meant, rather than the usual reference to the world in general. That I liked very much.

Again, there was the difficulty from the opening scene in getting to grips with how Lady Macbeth persuades her husband to kill Duncan. From Terminator-like assassin, he’d become a picky wimp, and she had to work hard to get him to change his mind. Frankly, I didn’t think she’d manage it, good though her performance was, but then I wasn’t buying much of Macbeth’s emotional posturing at this point. However, I did enjoy Derbhle’s performance. She managed to be hard as nails, yet a little nervy with it, taking us a bit further along Lady Macbeth’s descent into hell.

The opening to the next scene, Banquo’s arrival leading into the dagger speech, was a bit hesitant. The language didn’t seem to come across too well, but the arrival of the witches certainly helped. One came on and dropped a dagger onto the stage in perfect time for Macbeth to give his speech. As he went to grab it, she whisked it away, and another of the three, having already come on, dropped another dagger on another part of the stage. And so it went on, a nice piece of staging and perfectly timed, with the last dagger being removed just before “There’s no such thing”. As the bell tolled, he climbed up the ladder to go to Duncan’s room.

Lady Macbeth appeared, and was now showing her nervousness more clearly. Their dialogue was largely lost for me, as it was rushed through so quickly. I know they’re agitated, but there’s no need to lose it altogether. Lady Macbeth might be able to speak brave words to her husband, but her face gave her away when she grabbed the daggers – she wasn’t looking forward to this at all.

The porter was played by all three witches, tossing a pig’s head between them – not a scene that I’ll be fondly remembering anytime soon. The words were too garbled (keen to get past the unintelligible stuff quickly, perhaps?) and the actions not particularly helpful. The one witch who stayed behind to actually talk to Macduff and Lennox was pretty graphic about standing to and not standing to, and really enjoyed her own joke, but it wasn’t the best porter scene I’ve experienced. Of course, they need time for Macbeth to get cleaned up, as he would be back on stage pretty soon to greet Macduff himself. Then we had the discovery of the murder, lots of people rushing on stage in various states of attire, Macbeth admitting to having killed the grooms, and Lady Macbeth throwing up over the top balcony railing, before collapsing and being carried off. As so much was going on, I’m not sure how she was playing that bit; whether it was a device to distract the others from Macbeth’s maladroit justification of his actions, or just because it’s all got too much for her. Anyway, my main thought at this time was a forensic one. Macbeth’s really smart here, because not only has he got rid of two potential witnesses in the grooms, he’s covered up any evidence of him killing Duncan – if the CSI people were to check him for blood, he could always claim he got Duncan’s blood on him from the grooms. When I find myself thinking like this during a performance, it’s not usually a good sign.

The play trundled on in the usual way – I must say, they did at least stick pretty much to the standard version, and after a year of viewing Shakespeare from just about every angle except right way up, this was a pleasant change. Donalbain and Malcolm fled, people chatted about what’s going on, Banquo was getting his hopes up, King Macbeth and his Queen were looking happy with the world, Banquo went off riding, Macbeth invited the murderers onto the stage, the Queen talked with him afterwards, and was even more worried by him not confiding in her, and then the murderers, joined by one of the witches as the third murderer, tackled Banquo and Fleance.

Having a witch as the third murderer worked very well, I thought. Remember, the witches are working to bring down Macbeth, and in this scene she was the one who put out the light, making it harder for the murderers to do their job. If I heard correctly, she told Fleance to flee even before his father did, and although she went after him, she showed no signs of attacking him. This was a good way to interpret the scene, I found – one of the better ways in which the witches were woven into the fabric of the staging.

When Banquo was killed, he was lying to our right, near the front corner of the stage. I remember thinking, that’ll be handy for him when it comes time to join in the feast. Sure enough, when the time came, the weird women helped him up, smeared his face with blood, and placed him in the empty chair. Macbeth freaked out, as usual, and sent him packing, and they took him off. A little later, I noticed the tablecloth twitch a bit, and reckoned he’d be coming up through the trapdoor for his next entrance. Sure enough, he did. Some blood had been dripped over the fruit in the middle of the table, and then he rose up, sending the middle trestle flying, and the food and fruit went everywhere. I took a moment or two to stop a bloody apple from landing in my lap. As Lady Macbeth tried to calm her husband down, off to our left, a grinning Banquo was seated at what remained of the table, and the witches were waving his hand at them. It was both funny and scary – I could understand why Macbeth was freaking out. Unfortunately, he was so upset that he let fly with his hand and swept a cup off the table, so that Steve and I (and people for several rows back) were sprayed with a large amount of fake wine. It was a bit of a shock, as I’m not used to this sort of audience participation, so I really didn’t notice much of the rest of that scene, but it finished pretty soon anyway, and we could begin to clear up the mess. As did the stage staff.

We wiped ourselves down, and Steve went to change the program, as that had been splashed. He likes to keep them, so a clean copy is essential. As he did this, I realised I wasn’t happy sitting there any longer. Rather than just leave (although I was tempted), I asked if there were any other seats available. I must say the RSC staff were very helpful, and it turned out there were tickets for two seats in Row H which hadn’t been collected, so as these seemed perfectly good, we took them. There was more cleaning up to do, but fortunately, we were both wearing red or pink tops (I was in the pink), so the evidence of our splashing was fast disappearing.

I was happy with the change because I had felt too close to the action during the first half. That’s not usually my complaint, but this production had evidently taken “sound and fury” to heart, and there was so much going on at times, and on different parts of the stage, that I was having to look round a lot more than usual to be aware of what was going on. This isn’t a criticism of the staging, as I like productions to use the Swan to the full, but in this case I felt happier being further back, so that I could get a better overview of the action (and no more wine).

Hecate was dropped, as I would expect with this interpretation, and so they restarted with the review of the story when Lennox and another Lord had a little chat. Fortunately, I had been paying attention, so it didn’t matter that this didn’t come across clearly. The witches came on carrying suitacses for their consultation with Macbeth. Instead of the various items they were chanting about, they took dolls and babies’ clothes out of the suitcases to put in the cauldron/pit. I found this very moving. When Macbeth arrived, demanding answers, there was a strange extra section where the witches sat him in a chair, put a bag over his head and then a noose, and proceeded to hang him. Not to death, obviously, but just a bit. Why? Time of the month? No explanation was forthcoming, and it didn’t add to the play for me. They used dolls to represent the various apparitions. To show Banquo’s line, lots of dolls dropped down from the ceiling.

Macduff’s family was next in line to be killed. Again, I found this to be less clear than I’ve seen before, although choosing to show Lady Macduff about eight months gone added to the emotional emphasis on childlessness. One of the three witches came on to advise Lady Macduff to fly, and she was apparently speaking out of turn: the other witches made this clear when they turned up. The killings were added to by the killers raping her, largely out of sight, but still unnecessary, even in this context. I was looking forward to the end already.

About this time I was beginning to despair. I felt I’d lost my ability to keep an open mind, and to adapt to new productions and different ways of doing things. Then I thought back to all the performances we’d seen over the past year, and which I’d written up in these notes. I realised this was just a temporary blip, that actually we’re pretty good at accepting these productions on their own terms, and I felt much better. Thank goodness for this writing – it’s something concrete I can refer back to if I lose track again.

The meeting between Macduff and Malcolm worked better than a lot of the scenes. In particular, the line “He has no children” was fairly howled out by Macduff – very moving. Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking confirmed the madness that had been set up earlier and beautifully developed, and was one of the best versions I’ve heard. Then we’re basically into the battle preparation and final fights, and then home. The messenger who came on to tell Macbeth about the forest moving was one of the witches, and she grinned as she left, knowing she’s just told him something fearful. The cry of women was done by the three sisters from the top balcony, and was piercing and eerie. The final confrontation between Macduff and Macbeth worked well enough, and so to bed.

As I write this, I feel I haven’t quite done it justice. It wasn’t as boring as it might seem from my terse descriptions, although I don’t regret any of them. The delivery of lines was poorer than I’m used to, and some of the contrived extras – the rape, the hanging – did nothing for me. Having seen all these actors in Macbett the night before, we know they’re all good at their job, so I have to put the problems down entirely to the director and his concept for the piece. The idea of having the three witches as women avenging the deaths of themselves and their children is superficially tempting, but it shifts the balance of the play too much for me. It became partly a revenge drama, rather than a tragedy based on extremes of ambition. I liked the emphasis on inner psychology in places, but then the witches were definitely supernatural, which contradicts that reading a bit. All in all, it was too unbalanced to be really enjoyable, though I will remember some bits with great pleasure.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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