Macbeth – June 2011

9/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Michael Boyd

Venue: RST

Date: Tuesday 14th June 2011

This was fantastic! The whole production worked wonderfully well, with some great performances and some startling new interpretations. The initial set was a derelict church. The back wall, across the back of the thrust, had wood panelling on each side, and a large wooden door in the middle underneath a wide balcony. Defaced paintings either side of the door suggested the Reformation period. Above this, the remains of two large stained glass windows stood either side of two saint niches – one of these had been blasted through to the outside, while the saint in the other one was damaged. Stairs ran down to the stage on the left, and there were two piles of rubble in front of the back wall, either side of the door; the remains of the missing saint could be seen on one pile. Two lines of strip lights went back to front of the stage, and there were some missing bits in the floorboards. Although it wasn’t a factory setting, it reminded me of last year’s King Lear set, and I was a bit worried at first. But I soon realised that this set didn’t dominate the action, and it was tidied up in the interval, with significant repairs for the final scene. I wondered later if the sense of destruction may have been intended to suggest that the country was more divided in Duncan’s time than they were letting on?

Before the start, three women carried their cellos onto the balcony, and sat there throughout the action. Oho, we thought, could these represent the three witches? But no, they played some beautiful music, moody and melancholic, but there were no witches in this production, so tough. In fact, the play started with the bloody man’s speech, only this time the bloody man is Malcolm, and he’s prompted several times by Ross before he gets going. This confused me a bit – neither Steve nor I can figure out what the prompting was intended to convey, either at the start or later on – and that may have been why I didn’t understand the first bit of Malcolm’s speech properly. For the most part, the dialogue was extraordinarily clear; this was about the only bit I had difficulty with.

After the initial report of the battle, the witches are supposed to put in a second appearance, but here we go straight to Macbeth and Banquo arriving on stage. Did I detect a hint of limp as Macbeth first walked onto the stage? Or was it just the memory of Richard III? Anyway, there’s little for Macbeth and Banquo to say at this point, until three figures are lowered down on meat hooks at the front of the stage. At first I thought they were dummies, then I realised they were alive, and not only that, they were three children, two boys and one girl. Wearing drab clothes, they had dark crosses painted on their foreheads. Steve was aware that these represented the crosses for birth and death. They spoke their first lines from the air, hailing Macbeth and priming him with the seductive titles, then descended and removed their hooks while Banquo is saying his lines. The children turn to leave, but Banquo calls them back, and they give his prophecies in a very solemn way, before bursting into childish laughter (think The Turn Of The Screw) and running off. This was very creepy. I didn’t have a clear view of Macbeth while all of this was going on, so I want to watch carefully another time to see his reactions to the children’s greetings.

Ross and Angus arrive, and Macbeth is clearly stunned to hear himself addressed as Thane of Cawdor. He stays towards the front of the stage to talk to us while Banquo chats with Ross and Angus back left. After they leave, Duncan walks on from the back, while Malcolm, now cleaned up but still with a scar on his forehead, reports the death of Cawdor. As Duncan emphasised the line “He was a gentleman on whom I built an absolute trust”, I was aware that he’s about to make the same mistake again.

Macbeth and Banquo approached this gathering down the centre aisle, and again all the lines were totally clear. There’s just a hint of Macbeth leaning forward as Duncan turns in his direction to announce that Malcolm is to be his successor; Malcolm was standing next to Macbeth at the time. Macbeth’s lines about heading off to his castle to prepare for the king’s visit sounded stilted and jerky compared to his previous lines, but the court presumably put it down to battle fatigue.

As they left the stage towards the front, Lady Macbeth sneaks on at the back. She’s clearly come into another room to read Macbeth’s letter; I got the impression that she’s read the start of it, realised it wasn’t for public viewing, and stepped aside to read the rest in a private chamber. This was a great performance, with clarity in the dialogue, and a sense of someone not so much evil as ruthless, and prepared to go as far as she could to achieve her ambition. In some ways, this was more disturbing than seeing her as a monster; she could just as easily be a suburban housewife as a wannabe queen.

Macbeth arrives, and she soon realises she’ll have to persuade him to murder Duncan. Then Duncan himself arrives, and is greeted warmly by Lady Macbeth. Macbeth’s soliloquy “If it were done when ‘tis done” was delivered well; Jonathan Slinger tended to do all of these speeches from the sweet spot, or as near as he could get from up a ladder, suspended in a chair or whatever. There wasn’t much movement, but he included us all, and as we were right round one side, I was impressed. During the persuasion scene, Macbeth actually walks off part way through. Lady Macbeth stops him with “I have given suck”, and gets him back with “but screw your courage to the sticking point and we’ll not fail”, with a strong emphasis on “your courage”.

When Banquo comes on with Fleance, I wasn’t sure why he gave the boy his sword to hold at first, but then he handed Fleance a jewelled orb to hold as well, posing him carefully, and it dawned on me; he wants to savour the prospect of his children being kings! The orb is the diamond he gives to Macbeth shortly afterwards, and then we’re into the famous dagger speech. This time, the dagger is totally imaginary, although with a swirling mist in the middle of the stage, we could be forgiven for thinking there might be something there, if only we could see it! (I jest; actually the mist wasn’t that thick this time.)

After he leaves, Lady Macbeth comes on from the side, and has clearly been drinking with the grooms. The owl’s screech is actually done by the little girl running across the stage from the back to the far walkway, invisible to Lady M. The rest of the scene is nicely edgy; both characters are showing the strains of murder, and Macbeth especially is far too loud for comfort; Lady M puts her hand over his mouth to quiet him at one point.

The next scene is the porter, and here I have to admit to one of the few occasions when I have been so deeply impressed by one performance that all others fail miserably by comparison. I’m referring to Adrian Schiller’s marvellous portrayal of a completely sozzled porter many years ago, when he fell down between two bits of scenery and re-emerged still holding his drink. We will always remember that porter, and so we have no great expectations of this scene in any other production. This version wasn’t too bad, though, and now that I’ve read the program notes, I can see that the business was intended to reflect the failed gunpowder plot of 1605. The porter, dressed in a red outfit (this is relevant – read on), with a bulging coat and blood on his face, staggered on and leered at us all. He opened his coat, and there were lots of sticks of dynamite strapped to his body. He took one out, and as he identified each new arrival in hell, he lit the fuse and placed the stick of dynamite in front of the poor audience member. I knew they wouldn’t blow us up, but even so, I found myself riveted on the fuses as they burned down. They were different lengths, so they all reached the dynamite at about the same time, and then stopped. Nothing. The porter picked them all up and threw them in disgust in the corner, amongst the rubble, where they went off with fairly loud bangs. Good fun. Then he warned us not to go back to a lit firework, which got another laugh and applause.

Macduff arrived, and as he went in to wake the king, Macbeth, Ross and the porter waited outside – Ross took the part of Lennox. Again, I couldn’t quite see what was going on between the porter and Macbeth, but Macbeth was looking very intently at him. The alarms and clamour were all well done, and I could see that the situation could appear too risky for Malcolm to stay and claim his crown as Duncan’s heir. Macbeth’s justification for killing the grooms was strong enough to sound reasonable this time, and I couldn’t see enough of Lady Macbeth’s faint to know how that was set up. There was a strong atmosphere of suspicion and uncertainty.

As I recall, the next scene started with Ross on his own, later joined by Macduff, and already Ross is coming across as an appeaser type, wanting things to be well, but nervous about what’s really going on. Macduff is much more straightforward. I forget whether we get Banquo’s lines at the start of the next scene or not, but we do get a coronation. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth come down from above, sitting on either a pair of thrones or a bench, with the other nobles coming on from the sides. Ross has been wearing a crucifix during the play so far, and now with some additional religious dressing, conducts the ceremony. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth kneel facing each other across the middle of the stage, with Ross behind them. A large bowl is placed between the Macbeths, and water rains down from above, filling it up. Ross dunks Macbeth’s head in the water, and uses it to make the sign of the cross. I don’t remember if he does the same to Lady Macbeth. The bowl is removed, after the water has stopped, of course, and a posh new robe is placed on Macbeth along with the crown. The court shouts “God save the King” a couple of times, and then the dialogue picks up again with Macbeth’s welcome to Banquo. After their brief discussion, Banquo tries to take his leave several times, with Macbeth asking a fresh question and keeping him there. Finally he leaves, and Macbeth dismisses the rest of the court, including Lady Macbeth, who’s evidently concerned at being excluded.

Macbeth’s soliloquy was fine, and then I think the murderers were brought on by the porter, or Seyton as we now know him to be. They’re quickly convinced by Macbeth’s arguments, and willing to do the necessary killing. After they leave, Lady Macbeth tells us of her concerns about their situation, and then rallies to encourage her husband when he expresses the same feelings. Macbeth gives his wife a big hug at this point, wrapping his arms and his robe around them both like a huge duvet, making it a little hard to see their expressions, but it’s clear that Lady Macbeth isn’t happy about things.

Seyton joins the two murderers for the attack on Banquo and Fleance. The fight is worth paying attention to; Banquo is stabbed several times, then holds on to one of the murderers to stop him reaching Fleance, who’s standing still instead of running away. Finally Fleance runs and Banquo’s throat is cut from behind. The two murderers run off, and then Banquo rolls over, gets up, and walks through the door which is held open by Seyton/the porter. Seyton’s red outfit echoes the red clothes worn by the gatekeeper to the dead in Michael Boyd’s Histories cycle, and it’s clear he’s carrying out the same role here.

The banquet scene was nice and uncluttered in this production. Instead of bringing on a table and lots of chairs, the stage is left bare, and the Macbeths and the rest of the court simply walk around. We, the audience, are included in the assembled throng. Macbeth’s comment about there not being a place for him at the table is obviously cut. The conversation with the murderer takes place at the back of the stage, and when Banquo arrives the first time, he batters through the door, and walks over to Macbeth before leaving. The second time round, Banquo comes down from the balcony, strides over to Macbeth, and executes the same wounds on him that he received when he was murdered, while Macbeth cries out “Treachery” and “Fly” as Banquo did to Fleance. Lady Macbeth is very upset, and when she complains that Macbeth’s behaviour spoils the mirth, she grins and laughs too much, trying to make the situation into a joke, but no one else joins in. This was clearly the start of her madness.

When Macbeth ‘dies’, the scene is ended, and they take the interval, which reminded us of the Rupert Goold Macbeth in Chichester several years ago. Sure enough, the second half starts with a short reprise of Banquo’s second appearance, only without the ghost, so Macbeth’s ranting and reactions to the blows are caused by nothing. Lady Macbeth goes hysterical, the court is seriously concerned, and after she sends them packing she and Macbeth are both badly shaken. Steve reckoned this was the first time he could see both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth go crazy; she reacts by sleepwalking, he goes hard and cold, and keeps killing people. The seeds of the madness are sown in this scene.

It’s nothing new for productions to skip over Hecate’s next scene, but the following scene is usually between Lennox and another Lord. Here we get Ross, on his own, and deeply troubled. He’s not only nervous, he’s drinking a lot from a flask, and his speech again shows that he’s doing his best to accept Macbeth as a good king, but the evidence keeps mounting up on the other side. That speech finishes early, and then Ross leaves the stage to Macbeth and the three meat hooks.

The three children aren’t around to begin with, but after Macbeth conjures them, we hear them giggling and laughing, and then they come on from the back, each one carrying a doll. They sit in the centre of the stage, and the prophecies are delivered through the dolls, with a lot more dolls falling down from above when Banquo’s line of kings is being shown. For this part, Banquo himself puts in an appearance, bursting up through the stage floor on the far side, leaving a hole which is there for the rest of the performance. The first murderer is the one Macbeth talks to after the apparitions have gone, and it’s clear Macbeth means business. In fact I half expected to see him turn up at Macduff’s castle to do some killing himself, but it was not to be. Interesting idea, though.

At Macduff’s castle, Ross has come to visit his cousins, but although he knows more about the state of the realm, and must have some inkling of how much danger she and her children are in, he doesn’t tell her to run off. Nor, since the messenger has been cut, does anybody else. Her three children are, of course, the three dead children who have been plaguing Macbeth, cleaned up for the occasion, and it’s a bit spooky to realise that they’ve time-travelled in order to get their revenge. The two murderers do their job fairly quickly, although one of them leads the little girl off stage to our right while the other finishes off Lady Macduff by the back wall. When the murderers have left, the dead bodies on stage rise up as Banquo did, and the porter is there to hold the door open for them. Just at the end, the little girl comes running back on stage, so we know she’s been killed as well. Ross appeared at the far balcony just as the dead bodies were removing themselves, so he sees what’s happened for himself.

To England now, and an excellent reading of the scene between Macduff and Malcolm. It started with Macduff coming on stage at the front as his family go through the door at the back. He strides after them, but the door shuts before he can get there, and he hits it forcefully, after which the dialogue started. I found this scene so moving that I cried quite a bit. I reckon Ross delayed the news about the slaughter of Macduff’s family because Scotland’s needs were a greater priority that one man’s. I also spotted that Ross is no longer wearing his crucifix, whether for simplicity’s sake while travelling, or to indicate his moral discomfort, I don’t know. I couldn’t see him properly at the end, so I must look out next time to see if he’s wearing the crucifix again at the end. They included the lines about Edward the Confessor tonight; I think I may have heard them, or some of them, before, although Michael Boyd was sure they were always cut.

The doctor and the gentlewoman are next, and Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene was very well done. When she was washing her hands, it reminded me of the water falling into the bowl during the coronation, as if she’s trying to use holy water to clean herself. She almost walked into the hole in the stage, but her attendant stopped her.

Macbeth’s next entrance is on a throne lowered from above towards the back of the thrust. He’s feeling confident and rather bullish, and there are some laughs at his lines. When the message about the soldiers comes, he actually cuts the messenger’s face himself, and smears the blood over it, although I was too far away to see this in detail. Seyton is sitting up on the balcony, and doesn’t come down until he finally gets Macbeth’s armour. I’ve forgotten now if we see the doctor again – I think that may have been cut, but I’ll watch more closely next time.

When Malcolm and the army arrive, they’re accompanied by Banquo and the dead Macduffs, but not by Siward. This is a Scots-only do. Later, when the army arrives at Dunsinane, Lady Macduff and her children are the ones carrying the branches – in fact she’s carrying a small tree – while the soldiers are unencumbered. The greenery is placed in the hole for the duration.

For Macbeth’s next speech, a ladder rises up from the stage towards the back of the thrust, and Macbeth climbs up it. The start of “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” was good enough, but I felt the rest of speech wasn’t quite there yet, though close. I think this scene runs into the start of battle, and as Macbeth is fighting the Scottish version of young Siward, Lady Macduff comes on carrying a sword, and leaves it beside the door at the back. When Macduff himself arrives, he grabs that extra sword when Macbeth attacks him with two of his own, and finally kills Macbeth on stage. As he lies there, Malcolm enters, and Macduff goes straight into “Hail, king!”. With Malcolm being prompted yet again by Ross for “We shall not spend…..” the play is almost finished, but there’s still one dead body to deal with.

At the very end, while the cello music is playing, Lady Macduff goes upstairs and opens the shutters on the stained glass windows, which are now whole, and which let in a beautiful light. She comes back downstairs, and along with her children spends a few moments just standing at the front of the stage, while they look at the dead Macbeth. Then they leave, and Seyton comes on to escort Macbeth’s dead body off stage. Macbeth rises, as if surprised to find there’s life after death, and looks around, He sees the door and heads towards it, and then the lights go out. Now it’s the audience’s turn to be noisy, and we do our very best.

This was a tremendous emotional journey, with many enjoyable performances. After seeing four of this season’s productions, I think the ensemble is stronger this time than last, with better verse speaking and lots of comic talent. Jonathan Slinger’s performance as Macbeth showed all the power he’s gained from such a long stint in The Histories, and although the connections with Richard III were obvious, I didn’t feel the earlier portrayal got in the way. Scott Handy took Ross on an interesting journey, helped by being given some of the other minor parts’ dialogue. He starts out a bit of an appeaser, then realises things have gone too far and goes to England. While he carried out the coronation, he sang beautifully using his falsetto singing voice which I remember from his Ariel, many years ago. Aislín McGuckin was wonderful as Lady Macbeth, and the whole cast supported the central performances brilliantly. The four children tonight were Jason Battersby, Hal Hewetson, Anwar Ridwan (Fleance), and Isabella Sanders.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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