“By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes”…
Polly Findlay directs the RSC’s latest production of ‘Macbeth’, Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy. A modern day adaptation set in a corporate environment, this psychological thriller resonates with its modern day audiences, exploring the disastrous consequences of ambition, and the psychological effects it has on those in its unyielding grasp.
Returning home after victory in battle, Scottish general Macbeth is met by a trio of witches, who prophesy that one day he will become king of Scotland. Spurred to action by their words, and consumed by ambition, Macbeth murders King Duncan, taking the throne for himself. Wracked with guilt and paranoia, the death count begins to rise as Macbeth finds himself forced to commit more murders, his now tyrannical rule culminating in a bloody civil war, whilst both he and his wife, the steely Lady Macbeth, begin to descend into the realms of madness.
In his debut RSC performance, Christopher Eccleston excels as eponymous character Macbeth. Praised for his bravery on the battlefield, this is a man with an acute military prowess, oozing confidence and valour. After the character’s meeting with the witches, however, he begins to reflect a man harbouring a dark, deep-seated ambition, who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. A villainous protagonist, Eccleston achieves a harmonious balance, walking a fine line between good and bad, encouraging his audience to consider whether this is a character that can simply be labelled as being wholly evil. Not initially predisposed to murder, Eccleston’s Macbeth is driven to it, influenced by forces that alter his very nature, trapping him in a vicious cycle of increasing evil, causing his audience to question whether he should be alleviated of some of the moral responsibility for his crimes, and the ensuing disorder and subsequent carnage. At times seemingly untouched by what he has done, Eccleston frequently falls into bouts of madness as we see the consequences of his ambition, and his hallucinations (lacking any physical manifestation in the form of props) make for unnerving moments, as his instability, his mental fragility, is exposed.
Niamh Cusack’s Lady Macbeth is a powerful and manipulative presence, possessing none of her husband’s uncertainty. A woman of action, she inverts normative gender roles by overriding Macbeth, undermining his masculinity and taking charge. Calculating and determined, she frames King Duncan’s sleeping servants for his murder by planting bloody daggers on them. However, like her husband, she is wracked with guilt, unable to wash the figurative blood from her hands. Lacking slightly in the cold and quiet composure you’d expect from Lady Macbeth prior to the murder, Cusack’s delivery began a little too animated, and could have done with reigning in slightly so the character’s mental deterioration is exaggerated, making it more shocking, retaining a fiercer air of poignancy when the character goes on to commit suicide. However, a passionate performance, a fiery Cusack complements Eccleston’s Macbeth, and his character sinks into a deep despair upon her death. The audience sense his pain as he reflects on the meaningless and brevity of life. Like that “damned spot” , their ambition, though not visible, was firmly rooted, unable to erase, its consequences devastatingly inescapable.
Despite its many redeeming features, there are couple of points at which the production is simply too innovative for its own good. Some of Findlay’s risky ideas are too experimental, hovering on the verge of abstraction (i.e. the Porter vacuuming the stage). The audience have to work harder to understand the significance of such direction, which works to the detriment of the production, detracting from the raw power of Shakespeare’s text, which should be the main focus. The biggest issue lies in the show’s staging – some of the action takes places in a large glass box on a balcony above the stage, with captions often appearing above to inform the audience of locations, time lapses, etc. Whilst effective in theory, for those audience members sat on the back rows of the stalls in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s thrust stage auditorium, such staging certainly didn’t pay off, completely eluding their sight-line. An intriguing concept, it will no doubt sit better with those watching the live recording, or at London’s Barbican theatre, with its proscenium arch stage, when the show transfers.
However, an interesting take on an oft performed play, Findlay ensures her production achieves a level of originality, and the production bears many bold features that make for a chilling watch.
The witches, portrayed here by three young girls (a nod to ‘The Shining’) maintained an element of horror, their presence onstage communicating impending doom. Despite a grounding in reality, wearing red onesies and bed socks (a little too gimmicky, perhaps?) and playing with dolls, they certainly had something of the other-worldly about them. Not subject to the laws of man, they seem to straddle the borders between the real world and the supernatural. Often appearing from nowhere, smoke would cloud their entrances and exits, infringing on the audience’s visibility, so too clouding the vision of Macbeth, blinding him – as does his ambition to rationality. The witches represent darkness, playing with fate as they tempt Macbeth onto a murderous path, that will ultimately lead to his own destruction. Despite their youth and deceptively sweet appearance (they may “look like the innocent flower”), they seem to personify the very line they themselves deliver – “fair is foul and foul is fair”, and so set the tone for the rest of the production.
Another interesting move was the presence of a water cooler on stage throughout the production. Whilst several of the characters used it for the simple purpose of drinking, thus quenching their thirst, this was the source from which Lady Macbeth attempted to wash her hands of blood, albeit imaginary, in a vain attempt to extinguish her guilt. The large prop seemed to become something of a focal point during the production, eerily drawing the eye as light illuminated it against the dark backdrop of the set. It’s possible that its constancy hints at the lasting sin of mankind, ever present, and our desire to be washed clean, purified, the water a symbol for the cleansing of guilt. However, as we see with Lady Macbeth, although able to wash her hands of their literal blood, her guilt remained, much harder to erase.
Findlay cleverly develops the role of the Porter in this adaptation, and actor Michael Hodgson‘s constant presence remains an unnerving source of ambiguity. The audience are unable to comprehend whether the role he plays is a passive one, a mere witness to events, or active, as an agent, with the ability to control fate, and a measure of power over life and death. Once again deceptively, the Porter is, on the surface, the gatekeeper of the Macbeth’s family home. However, it is he who keeps note of the death count on the outer walls of the set, using white chalk to mark a tally each time a character is killed. As a result, he can thus be likened to a gatekeeper of heaven (or is it hell?), charting the passage of souls from this world to the next. As the production hurtles towards its climax, Hodgson begins to tally frantically, in a manner suggestive of the deaths of hundreds as Macbeth’s tyranny comes to fruition. In accordance with biblical imagery, “the wages sin pays is death” – once dead, a person is cleansed of their sin, having paid back the wage (death). It’s worth considering then, whether this mysterious Porter, by marking a death in white chalk, is himself cleansing these characters, allowing them to achieve a lasting peace and purity, in death.
Above the stage, a large digital clock omnisciently oversees the action below, its red digits, a colour synonymous with danger, counting down two hours from the time of King Duncan’s murder, to Macbeth’s own death. This attributes a startling pace to a suspenseful production, the last ten minutes in particular gripping an audience teetering on the edges of their seats. A morbid thought, time is inextricably linked with death, and the counting down of the clock finds a positive correlation with the play’s rising death count. However, despite so many character deaths, the clock continues – life goes on. A brutal indicator of the little time Macbeth has remaining, it’s not until he himself is murdered that the clock comes to a standstill.
The production’s original and resolute conclusion sees the young Fleance (son of Banquo) return to the stage, wielding his father’s sword, turning to face the newly crowned Malcolm, rightful king, played here by Luke Newberry. The clock resets at this point, poised to countdown yet another two hours, hinting at the precious little time this new ruler will have before he too is displaced. In Shakespeare’s day, monarchs were swiftly and regularly supplanted, and this climax highlights the instability and uncertainty of a nation during the transition of its leaders, an idea with which modern day audiences can relate. We have simply come full circle, trapped in the vicious cycle of life and death, the arrival of “something wicked” again imminent, a testament to the tyrannical rule of time.
A timely and gripping production, Findlay’s ‘Macbeth’ skilfully navigates the deterioration and psychological collapse of its central couple. No less relevant in today’s world than in the time of Shakespeare, this very human piece explores the far-reaching consequences of ambition, and the production’s modernity ensures it achieves a heightened urgency. If you don’t see ‘Macbeth’ today, be sure to see it “tomorrow