By William Shakespeare
Directed by Polly Findlay
Date: Wednesday 27th June 2018
Due to Edward Bennett being unavailable for tonight’s performance, the RSC’s understudies program swung into action at the last minute, providing an able substitute for the part of MacDuff in John Macaulay (usually murderer, chamberlain, member of Scottish forces). Others were bumped up to fill the gaps, and although we were aware he was an understudy, I don’t feel the performance suffered too much from the changeover. Another viewing when Ed has returned would be interesting, but for now we were happy with the cast we saw.
This was definitely the best of the three productions we’ve seen this year. Despite some reservations about aspects of the staging, the performance was strong, and drove the story along well and clearly. The numbers available in the cast meant that there wasn’t the same blending of characters that we’d seen in the previous productions, and while I missed some of the clarity which that brought, the sense of a proper court in a proper country with a proper king was so much more powerful than the dystopian visions we’d had to endure before. As with King Lear, if everything’s gone to the dogs already, the villains can’t have much of an impact: tonight there was a good king in charge of a stable country which had just fended off an attempted invasion, so the forces of evil had the potential for a big victory if they could get Macbeth to do their work for them.
The set was relatively sparse. The stage had a chunky, raised black edge, which made it even higher for those sitting in the front row. Inside, at a lower level, the flooring looked dark green, and at the start there was a bed in the middle of the stage with an grey-bearded man lying asleep in it – no prizes for guessing that this was Duncan. Two wide curtains covered the back opening, at room height, with a shiny black area above that could also be a window into the rear balcony, with the spaces above and below used as screens. There were some seats along the entranceways back left and right, with a water cooler next to them on the right and a large potted plant on the left. The lower side balconies were in use, with audience in the upper balconies.
Along with Duncan, the stage was occupied by a young woman, whom we later discovered was Donalbain (Donna Banya): she sat with her back to the bed, on the right side. There were also three girls, about eight or nine years old, on stage, two sitting at the front corners and the third sitting with her back to the foot of the bed. Again, no prizes for guessing that these were the three witches. They wore the same outfit – pink patterned hoodies with pink leggings – and each carried a doll. During the pre-show period they sometimes played with their dolls, but mostly they just sat there. Before the start, I also noticed something gold and circular hanging over the bed head, which turned out to be Duncan’s crown.
The play began with thunder, lightning and some strong chords. The three girls stood up and were lit for their lines, which were said using the dolls. I can’t say it made much of an impression on me – the lines weren’t very clear – and when they were done they ran off stage, accompanied by some flashes from strip lighting at the sides of the auditorium and the almost inevitable buzzing sound that goes with them these days – the ‘supernatural theme’.
Malcolm (Luke Newberry) brought on the bloody man, who knelt front right to tell his story. Duncan (David Acton) had been woken up and was sitting at the front of the bed wearing a dressing gown and his crown. “WHEN THE BATTLE’S LOST AND WON” was projected onto the brickwork above the rear balcony – I didn’t spot it straightaway – and when the story of the battle had been told, someone brought on a wheelchair so that Duncan could leave the stage. The witches obligingly returned to remove the bed, pushing it off, and leaving the stage clear for Macbeth (Christopher Eccleston) and Banquo (Raphael Sowole).
A lot of mist came on with the two men, supporting Macbeth’s brief weather report, and then they had a glimpse of the three young witches on the balcony. The girls then appeared so quickly on the ground level that I wondered if they’d used another of the sets of witches for this scene – they have three available. I also noticed that the Porter (Michael Hodgson) – grey janitor’s coat over trousers – was sitting in one of the chairs back left, with a woman, possibly a waiting woman, in a seat on the right.
The scene with the witches was lit from underneath, giving it a spooky appearance. When the girls left, slinking away quickly in the darkness, Macbeth and Banquo were both quite giggly. They went over the prophecies again and were treating them like a joke until Ross (Bally Gill) arrived and greeted Macbeth with the first of his new titles. That sobered both men up, and after a brief discussion, Banquo stayed with Ross on the right side of the stage while Macbeth did his musings out loud on the left side. The other two were clearly waiting for him to finish up, and Banquo even looked at his watch, which was quite funny.
“GLAMIS” appeared on the back wall under the main heading, and Lady Macbeth (Niamh Cusack) was the next on, changing the order of the text slightly. She had the letter from Macbeth in her hand, and I felt she was declaiming it rather loudly, as if she’d gathered the staff together for a rousing motivational speech. There was no sense of privacy in that vast space, nor any sense that she wanted to keep this to herself. Mind you, she only got as far as “Hail, King that shalt be”, and then the back curtains parted so that we could see Duncan’s victory party. Lady Macbeth left the stage, and the party spilled forward to greet Banquo and Macbeth: Fleance, a young boy this time, ran to Banquo to greet him.
The two soldiers had cleaned themselves up a bit, and wore dark military-looking uniforms while the revellers were in suits or similar. There was some flash photography, and finally Duncan stood up, with difficulty, and hugged Banquo. (Macbeth had also been warmly welcomed, but no hug.) Duncan stood at the front of the stage to “establish our estate”, and Banquo gestured for Macbeth to stand forward before the name was announced, which he did. Malcolm came from behind them to acknowledge his father’s choice, with only a slight reaction from Macbeth, and after they left, Lady Macbeth came back on for the rest of the letter.
She seemed a bit less hyper this time, and her invocation was particularly good, with a strong sense that she was up for whatever dark deed would get the job done, i.e. making her husband king. Macbeth came in through the back – with an accompanying chord, the upper inscription changed to “THE FUTURE IN THE INSTANT” – and after a quick hug, they had their brief planning session.
Duncan and his followers were on the balcony for their arrival at the castle, and Lady Macbeth went up to greet the king there: Duncan hugged her and gave her a bouquet. This was all very well, and was certainly visible, but the screen stayed in place so their voices had to be relayed to us via loudspeakers, which seemed totally wrong for an outdoor scene.
Meanwhile inside the castle, the servants were bustling around getting the place ready. The Porter was also on the move, and ended up sitting on the far side of the pot plant on the left, while Macbeth was sitting on the near side of the plant. I’m not sure if Macbeth was aware of him or not, but he didn’t acknowledge his presence in any way. Both Steve and I felt Macbeth’s soliloquy lacked detail, but the lines were at least coming across clearly.
The dinner party was revealed in the room above, with a long table, guests in formal wear and lots of crests along the back wall. Lady Macbeth came down to her husband, who was on the stage telling us of his doubts, and she had a real go at him. When she moved into the “I have given suck” section, she was evidently upset at remembering a lost child, and Macbeth ran over to support her. This statement of hers seemed to do the trick, and Macbeth became determined to do the murder. They waved to Duncan up above, who had stood up to applaud the happy couple, before leaving to rejoin the party. I still felt that these central performances were a bit too big for the space, perhaps a bit stylised even, but again they were getting the story across nice and clearly.
“LATER” appeared in the middle space – like we couldn’t have guessed? – when Fleance and his father came on. Fleance was wearing pyjamas and a dressing gown while his father was dressed normally, i.e. in evening wear from the party. Banquo’s sword was a machete, and I noticed that Macbeth’s attendant laughed when Banquo referred to the three weird sisters, presumably thinking it was some sexual reference. His response got a laugh from us.
The dagger speech was OK, and as the bell rang to indicate it was time for the murder, the rear door opened. Macbeth pulled up his hood as he left the stage, and then the Porter came on to set a timer going. Several things happened all at once: the word “NOW” appeared in the middle of the back wall above the balcony, a red digital timer was displayed on the bit below the balcony with the digits “2:00:00”, and the Porter used a remote control, as I remember it, to start this timer going. Glancing at my watch, I could see that we had about that time left, but it’s still a risky choice. The timer stayed there for the rest of the play and kept counting down – handy if you’re getting bored.
The Porter had more work to do when Macbeth came back on, hands red with blood but no sign of any daggers: he stood up and chalked a single line on the brickwork behind the chairs – I assumed this meant the first death. Lady Macbeth had already been on and showed us how nervous she was: now she got really snippy with Macbeth when he started to show his nerves. When Macbeth took his jacket off, we saw that the daggers were tucked inside it, and Lady Macbeth removed her shoes before taking them back into Duncan’s room. She was clearly unsettled by the murder, even though she kept trying to get Macbeth to focus on the immediate need – to get to their room and clean off the blood.
They used three loud chords for the knocking, and even without my hearing aids and in a very deep sleep, I think I’d have been woken up by the racket they made. Glamis castle must have very thick walls – probably double glazing as well, not to mention thick carpets – for only the Porter to be aware of the new arrivals. Given the casting and the amount of the Porter’s involvement so far, we were hopeful of a good stint for this section, and we weren’t disappointed. The Porter said the first lines from his chair, but soon stood up and, to prepare himself, licked his hand so he could smooth down his already smooth hair – we laughed. He went over to the water cooler and got himself a cup of water – really taking his time – then took out a torch and shone it round the audience to pick out his various examples. There weren’t a lot of laughs, but it was much more entertaining than both of the previous porters we’ve seen this year, thankfully.
There was another flash of the strip lights as Macduff and Lennox (Tim Samuels) came on, and the words above the balcony disappeared. The banter between the Porter and the other two got some laughs as well, and the Porter stayed on stage after Macbeth’s arrival. He indicated the door for Macduff to go to Duncan, and then sat down again.
Lady Macduff (Mariam Haque) and her children also came on stage, and the words “FEARS AND SCRUPLES SHAKE US” appeared on the back wall. The Porter made two more chalk marks on the back wall when Macbeth confessed to killing the grooms, and it seemed to me that Lady Macbeth was simply overcome by the gory details of the killing, which led to her collapse. Lady Macduff ran to her and helped her off. Malcolm and Donalbain came on with bloody hands after the others had left, agreeing to go their separate ways for now.
With the Porter sitting at the side, we learned of subsequent events when Ross met with family MacDuff – the man himself, Lady MacDuff, a young boy, a baby and a bulge in her abdomen which Lady Macduff put a protective hand on during the scene. She spoke the final line of the scene – “well, may you see things well done there” – and the family left together.
A parade of the Scottish nobles was next, while a red carpet was rolled out for the new king and queen. They entered, all togged up in the necessary regalia, and Macbeth knelt so that someone – forget who – could put the crown on his head. Lady Macbeth was in a blue dress with matching cloak and bling up to her eyeballs (tiara, necklace, bracelets, earrings, etc.), while Macbeth was in more military-style formal dress. They kissed after the crowning and posed for pictures in the middle of the stage, allowing Banquo some privacy for his little speech at the front, expressing his concerns and his hope for the future. While Macbeth asked Banquo about his plans for the day, he put the crown on Fleance’s head, which pleased the little lad very much. So much so that when Banquo retrieved it and handed it to Macbeth, Fleance clearly wanted it back – a nice touch.
After Banquo and Fleance left, Macbeth sent everyone else away, and this Lady Macbeth was fine about being asked to leave along with the others. An executive chair was brought on for Macbeth, while the two murderers were in rather scruffy clothes, suggestive of men down on their luck. They were easily won over – it wasn’t a memorable scene – and then the chair was removed and a double bed brought on – not sure if it was the same one as at the start – to indicate that we were in the master bedroom, where Lady Macbeth was getting ready for the banquet. The three witches pushed the bed into place, with Lady Macbeth sitting on it, while the word “LATER” appeared briefly above the balcony and the other words faded.
I liked the way they did this bit, with the Macbeths getting ready for the feast: it gave the scene that necessary intimacy along with a sense that they had somewhere to be so couldn’t take too long over their little chat. There is always a risk that too much business can get in the way of the dialogue, but that wasn’t the case tonight. When Macbeth began his invocation – “come, seeling night” – the words “THINGS BAD BEGUN MAKE STRONG THEMSELVES BY ILL” appeared in the usual place, and Lady Macbeth started to realise that things weren’t going as well as she’d thought. She ended up on the bed, where Macbeth held her down for a moment. A long look passed between them, and then they were off to the party.
The two murderers sat in chairs in the front corners, and were joined by the Porter, who entertained us all by eating a packet of crisps, noisily: the party was in full swing in the balcony area above. When one of the murderers grabbed the packet off him, he just stood there for a moment, and then took another packet of crisps out of his pocket and kept going – we laughed. The stage was darkened before Fleance came on, so he switched on the lights. Banquo followed, and spoke to one of the murderers while the Porter stood behind him miming killing actions – strangling, stabbing, etc – which led to more laughter. Then the Porter put out the light altogether, and when it came back on, Banquo was lying dead on the ground, Fleance was gone and the murderers had blood on them. I think they took the body off, but as the scene was being changed, I’m not sure – perhaps Banquo got up and left by himself.
The witches drew the table forward: it was a long one, as this court had quite a few nobles who could attend the feast. The yellow tablecloth, draped to the floor, drew our attention – we thought we knew how Banquo would arrive. The guests took their seats, and one murderer came on front left to give Macbeth the news: a fourth chalk mark had appeared beside the others by this time. Macbeth ordered Lennox to follow the murderer when he left, and I saw Lennox remove what looked like a gun from his pocket as he went off stage – getting rid of loose ends, obviously. There was a bit of blood on his forehead when he came back, which he wiped off when he sat down at the table, having drawn a few curious looks. Fifth chalk mark.
Macbeth’s chair was at the front of the stage and remained empty. They didn’t bring Banquo on for his first appearance, so we saw Macbeth’s outburst through the eyes of the others, and it was quite a shock. Macbeth was more angry than fearful, but it was a close-run thing. He even threw some bread at his chair, which in other circumstances would have been funny. Once he’d recovered, they got back to the feast, but Macbeth just couldn’t stop himself from giving Banquo another summons. This time, Banquo did come on, front right, and there was grey powder falling around the stage. Banquo leaned over the table to confront Macbeth, who was having an even stronger reaction to the ghost. His wife tried to calm him and held his head in her hands, with Banquo standing right beside her. Eventually Banquo left, but it was too late for the party, and the other guests soon left too. While Macbeth considered MacDuff’s absence, the Porter began clearing up the mess, using what looked like a cordless vacuum cleaner. As he worked his way round the side, Macbeth finished his deliberations and left, but Lady Macbeth was too stunned to move. The Porter reached the front of the stage, the words “THINGS…” began to flicker, and as the music reached its climax, the Porter swung round to look at Lady Macbeth. Lights. Interval.
They left the table on stage but cleared away the rest of the debris. The blood was mopped off the sides, but the powder, whatever it was, stayed front right. There were roughly fifty-eight minutes left on the clock at the restart, and the “THINGS…” words were still up there.
Lennox brought on a decanter, presumably of whisky, and two glasses, and, taking a seat on the left side of the table, poured himself a glass. One of the servants was still clearing up, and the Porter was sitting back right. Lennox invited the servant to have a drink, which he accepted, and then they went into Act 3 scene 6. It quickly became apparent that Lennox was using their conversation to get information from the servant, as well as gauging his loyalty to the new regime. He took the glass back towards the end of their conversation, and then the servant took both glasses off with him. As he made to follow, Lennox put his gun in his coat and took out a knife – “I’ll send my prayers with him” took on a whole new meaning as Lennox’s final line. Sixth chalk mark, on the other side.
“LATER”. Macbeth came on to visit the witches. The table was still there, but as a mist had sprung up, we were presumably not in the dining room anymore. The side lights flickered, and one witch appeared on the table, while the other two came out from under the front corners of the stage at the side, surprising the people sitting there. They quickly clambered onto the stage, but didn’t have much to do as the first apparition put in a very quick appearance. And we recognised him immediately as the servant who’d just been killed by Lennox. Despite having some blood on the side of his head, he seemed very jolly, and took a hefty swig from the decanter as he went past the table.
I couldn’t identify the second apparition, presumably a stand-in given the understudy situation, but the third was definitely the first murderer, who’d been shot by Lennox earlier. All three apparitions were having a good time, cheering each new arrival and greeting each other like long lost friends. They were the ones who said “seek to know no more”, and when Macbeth responded by cursing them, they gave a very entertaining “ooh”. Then they left, leaving the witches grouped in front of Macbeth in one corner of the stage. As the witches also left, Banquo arrived on the right balcony, and a row of crowns, at varying heights, appeared above the parapet of the main balcony. When this vision went, Macbeth was back in the dining room, with the Porter still using the cordless vacuum. Lennox came on to report on Macduff’s flight to England, and “OUR FEARS DO MAKE US TRAITORS” appeared above. This was one of the more entertaining apparition scenes, although I’m not sure how much of the detail came across to those not familiar with the story: it’s hard to pay attention to the prophecies when you’re laughing at the antics of the recently deceased.
The table was removed, allowing Lady Macduff and her son, together with Ross, to take to the stage – “FIFE” above, thirty-six minutes on the clock. Ross and the young Macduff were very playful together, slapping hands at one point. Having a youngster playing the boy is OK, but tonight I found the performance underpowered, as often happens in this situation: fortunately, Lady Macduff was good enough for both.
This time, there was no second warning. Lennox came on with two new murderers, and that was pretty much that. Lennox did help himself to a cup of water, and then Lady Macduff tried to run away with her son, but it was no use. They were dragged off stage, so at least we were spared the grisly details. With her and her children being killed, another five-bar gate appeared on the right-hand bricks, and while the witches wheeled on a desk and chairs, “ENGLAND” appeared on the back wall.
Malcolm brought on two paper cups and gave one to Macduff, who in return gave him a folder with the evidence about Scotland’s troubles. Malcolm did make the usual arguments against becoming king himself, and during this section the Porter was busy marking up all the extra killings Macbeth had carried out since the Macduff family had been slaughtered. He must have started some time before, because he was on the right side at this point, and when I looked over to the left side, that wall was already filled with marks. It was a distraction, the more so because the marks weren’t entirely visible. It did help to underscore what Macbeth was doing, of course, but I could have done without it at this point.
Malcolm’s change of tone didn’t convince me, and then we had the tricky entrance of Ross to negotiate. That first assurance that all was well, followed by the announcement that Macduff’s family have all been killed, is difficult to pull off, so although this wasn’t the best effort we’ve seen, I wouldn’t blame the actors or even the director this time. We put some of it down to the understudy having his first performance as Macduff, so it could well improve if he gets more practice. On Macduff’s “but gentle heavens cut short all intermission”, the words at the back changed to “WHAT’S DONE CANNOT BE UNDONE”, and the witches pushed the desk off after the three men.
The doctor (Katy Brittain) and a waiting woman sat at the front of the stage, and at first I couldn’t hear the lines very clearly. However, they soon went to the back and waited there, while Lady Macbeth appeared on the balcony. She came downstairs, wearing pyjamas and carrying a torch, and sat on the right side by the Porter, using water from the cooler to wash her hands. By this time, I’d also spotted that she was still wearing a diamond necklace and bracelet, the ones she’d worn at the coronation and feast, as if these items were reassuring her that she was still queen.
She did some crawling around the floor, and got some powder on her hands from a stash over on the left – “will these hands ne’er be clean?” – sprinkling some of it around as she came over to our side. Her distress was obvious, and this was a pretty good sleepwalking scene. The Porter said the line “she has spoke what she should not”, and after Lady Macbeth initially left the stage, she returned and got down into the audience for “give me your hand” – no chance, lady – before heading back off to bed. The Porter had taken the torch earlier, and gave it back to her as she left.
Macbeth came on in light-coloured fatigues with a black T-shirt and did a handstand squat front right. The Porter was now doing the work of Seyton, although I don’t think he was ever referred to by that name. He brought on Macbeth’s military jacket when asked, and helped him put it on, but soon afterwards Macbeth took it off and threw it at him. The English forces, together with Malcom and Macduff, did their Birnam Wood stuff on the balcony, and after they left Lady Macbeth could be seen up there, reading a letter – presumably the original one sent to her by Macbeth – which she scrunched up and threw away before leaving. Shortly afterwards, the Porter reported her death.
“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow…” began with 7:47 left on the timer, and it was clear by now that this was how long Macbeth had to live. A messenger announced the arrival of Birnam Wood, and frankly, seven minutes seemed a bit tight to wrap it all up. But they kept things moving very briskly, ditching a good chunk of the text and using a section of darkness mixed with short bursts of light – not quite strobe lighting – to show Macbeth in various poses, including lying down with the crown on his chest. “LATER” was shown above, but I reckon they could have ditched this bit, as it didn’t add anything of value for me.
They used a few lines to segue into the battle scenes, with the attacking force appearing again on the balcony and the Porter getting ready to add more chalk marks. Macbeth killed a couple of soldiers, including Donalbain, and when Macduff came on, he didn’t see Macbeth behind him. The Porter obligingly coughed to alert him, and after some dialogue – the understudy got a few words wrong – they went into one of the worst fight routines I’ve ever seen, certainly on the RSC stage. Bearing in mind the understudy had very little time to rehearse this bit, it makes sense that they would have to be ultra-cautious when swinging those swords around, so I don’t mean to criticise them, I’m just recording what happened.
Macduff was initially defeated by Macbeth, who easily took his sword from him. On “untimely ripped”, things changed. Macbeth looked at the Porter, as if checking the validity of Macduff’s statement, and the Porter nodded, which got a laugh. The final fight was much more vigorous, with flashing lights and more powder drizzling down – what was that meant to be? – but it also suffered from insufficient rehearsal time. Macbeth was still winning, having got Macduff down on the ground, and he was kicking him hard with 1:14 to go. Then he just gave up! He handed Macduff his sword and Macduff, mindful of the time, cut his throat right on the 00:00. There was a spurt of blood, and that was the end of Macbeth. The character, that is: the play had a little way to go yet.
The Porter looked at the clock at the crucial moment, to check that it was indeed 00:00, which got a laugh (should we be laughing at this point?). He then got out his vacuum, and began tidying the place up as Malcom spoke the final lines, dropping the last two – once he’d finished, he knelt down so he could be crowned there and then. As he did so, the witches appeared on the balcony, the side lights flashed and flickered, and Fleance came on and picked up a discarded sword, possibly Macbeth’s. The witches gave us a reprise of “by the pricking…” and “when shall we three…”, the timer started up again and ran down very quickly, and with the crown descending in slow motion onto Malcolm’s head, Fleance stood, sword raised, at the front of the stage, looking at Malcolm – the next victim? Lights.
The audience gave them a good reception, and we’d certainly enjoyed it well enough. The added humour helped, as did the clarity of the story-telling, and while there were some distractions along the way in the staging choices, overall it kept us interested. We found Christopher Ecclestone’s Macbeth rather crude, without much introspection or subtler tones – too much the bluff soldier whose soliloquys didn’t come across effectively. Niamh Cusack was fine as Lady Macbeth, and John Macaulay did a good job at such short notice with a tricky part. The rest of the cast were fine, and although we weren’t impressed with the choice for the witches – the three children in Michael Boyd’s 2011 RSC production were much creepier – they didn’t get in the way.
I noticed echoes of Hamlet in the first half, and Richard III in the second – don’t remember exactly where. We’re seeing this again, and will hopefully catch Ed Bennett as Macduff – it will be interesting to see what difference that makes, especially to the scene with Malcolm. Naturally we indulged in a bit of fantasy casting – after three productions in the same year it’s pretty much inevitable. We agreed that Rory Kinnear as Macbeth and Katy Stephens as Lady Macbeth (no disrespect to Niamh Cusack or Anne-Marie Duff) in this production would have been very strong. Ah well, we can dream.
© 2018 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me