RSC Macbeth Review: ‘technical wizardry fails to bring any tension or magic’

Dodgy directoral decisions and acting leaves one foreseeing a dark future for this unconvincing RSC production

Credit: Richard Davenport Copyright: Royal Shakespeare Company

The Royal Shakespeare Company has thrown everything they’ve got at this production and it really hasn’t worked. Set in what might as well be a bleak modern school hall, the play’s technical wizardry fails to bring any tension or magic. From lightning effects around the stalls to billowing smoke and vast wall-sized projections, the current version of Macbeth in the main house is clearly designed to be a modern-day theatrical spectacle and yet it falls a long way short.

This seems to be due to the Marvel effect: actors’ best efforts being hidden away under ceaseless special effects. The Banquo’s ghostly appearance to Macbeth at the head of a long dynastic apparition, for example, is a crucial scene in any production of ‘The Scottish Play’, and yet in this production it barely registered with the audience as a result of an overabundance of technicality. Dimly-lit crowns appear behind glass in a raised corridor, while the shadowy ghost of Banquo vaguely points at them in the background as Macbeth monologues upstage – astonishingly, neither of the people I went with could remember this after the show, which I can only presume was down to how much smoke was filling the stage at the time.

Past successes make it difficult to pinpoint what made this technology friendly Macbeth so soulless. Previous RSC productions have made use of similarly extravagant effects and spectacle (2011’s phenomenal Merchant of Venice) and bare sets (the most recent Coriolanus) alike.

It may be the total lack of emotional connection the characters fostered in the audience’s hearts that is the issue. The set and effects – while certainly needlessly complex – cannot be described as overshadowing good acting. It seems plausible that such details been turned up to 11 in an attempt to mask some less-than-compelling performances and bizarre directorial decisions.

Vague attempts to explain Lady Macbeth’s madness through repeated and unnecessary hammering home of how many people she’d indirectly been involved with killing are both clunky and ineffective. Giving the murderer of MacDuff’s children a voice recorder which inexplicably later comes into her possession seemed to suggest that the audience has been deemed incapable of thinking for themselves.

Christopher Eccleston’s Macbeth, meanwhile, is shouty and uncompelling, though there are admittedly brilliant flashes of what might have been as he writhes in agony at the appearance of Banquo’s ghost. For the most part, however, Eccleston’s Macbeth seems to be simply going through the motions of killing, governing, and fighting; it is as if there is no emotion or even real intent behind his actions. In a recent interview in the Radio Times, Eccleston commented that “when the BBC did The Hollow Crown series…I didn’t even get a call. Didn’t get an audition…did they think I’m a crap actor?” You might think that, Christopher… but I couldn’t possibly comment.

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It is perhaps worth noting, however, that at one crucial moment he hurled a bread roll over a table – only for the roll to bounce and land perfectly balanced on the back of a chair, briefly bringing a stunned silence to the theatre as the entire cast and audience stared on in disbelief. To say that Eccleston’s performance was upstaged by a bread roll might be a little harsh, but I’d be interested to hear from any other RSC-goers in the next few weeks whether or not he manages to repeat this astonishing feat before the end of the run.

A further issue was the editing of Shakespeare’s text; in order to achieve a snappy run-time of 2.5 hours (including interval), many lines have had to be cut. In the main, this was an admirably smooth process which led to a pleasantly pacy production – in other cases, however, such editing was little short of sacrilege for anyone even remotely familiar with the play. The Apparition’s famous urging of Macbeth to be “bloody, bold, and resolute” has been done away with; in its place a rogue between-scenes toast of the same line between two minor characters, losing all the line’s gravity and significance, and leaving the audience perplexed as to why it had been included at all. Moreover, Banquo’s last moving last words to his son before he is murdered – “o, treachery! Fly, good Fleance, fly, fly, fly! Thou mayst revenge” – have been removed altogether. The curious decision to project other quotes onto the very top of the set provides little restitution from this, instead distracting and detracting from what lines are left to be spoken onstage.

Projection forms a major element of the production design – not only the quotes, but also places (“GLAMIS”) and updates on the passage of time (“LATER” / “NOW”) are broadcast to the audience in bright white letters three feet high. While the programme insists that this is to remind the audience of Macbeth’s preoccupation with time, it left me unavoidably thinking of time-lapses in Spongebob Squarepants  – “THREE HOURS LATER” flashed through my mind at multiple unfortunate moments of the play. On a similarly anachronistic theme, perhaps the oddest directorial decision made in the entire production was to have a digital red second-by-second countdown clock ticking down for the last two hours of the performance, relentlessly central to the audience’s view of the stage. While at times putting me in mind of a ticking bomb or even an episode of Bake Off (“MacDuff! You have one hour remaining!”), the annoyance of constantly knowing how long is left (for the audience, not for play’s actual time-frame) ultimately seems more akin to leaving the mouse on the screen while watching YouTube, and hence condemning yourself to the timer at the bottom.

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This is not to say, however, that the production is entirely without merit. It picks up considerably in the second half, as the superb pairing of Edward Bennett (MacDuff) and Luke Newberry (Malcolm) were able to breathe convincing life into Shakespeare’s words at last; the reveal that MacDuff’s children have been killed is heartbreaking, in stark contrast to Eccleston later skating over the death of Lady Macbeth in the least moving portrayal of a spouse’s death I have ever seen. Michael Hodgeson, as the Porter, is both the most memorable and most perplexing part of the production – no mean feat. The porter is often portrayed as a jolly or drunken character, but the current production casts him as a caretaker, constantly sweeping the carpet and chalking up an ever-increasing tally of deaths on the very wall of the theatre, in a sufficiently ominous fashion to – all too briefly – inject some sense of suspense into the play.

Nevertheless, this production is very nearly worth seeing for the coronation scene alone. Suitably imposing music vibrating through the theatre, a red carpet plunges towards the front row, and Eccleston enters swathed in what might just be the most substantial cloak ever created. With an almighty swish, he turns to face upstage, kneels, and is crowned. Unfortunately, however, the subsequent scene is stolen by some very distracting re-rolling of the carpet; quite why this could not have been left until the end of the act escaped me.

Controversial an opinion as it may be, it seems possible that these faults are simply part of a much larger problem: perhaps Macbeth is just very hard to stage. The RSC’s 2011 attempt was unfortunately very forgettable, and the current production at the National Theatre has suffered from poor reviews despite a sterling cast (Rory Kinnear! Anne-Marie Duff! What could possibly go wrong?). Even Kenneth Brannagh’s legendary staging of Macbeth on a traverse stage in a deconsecrated Manchester church struggled to find a compelling way to balance the intimate conversations between the Macbeths with the necessary enormity of the final battle. Quite how Shakespeare intended it to be staged, we will never know – but what is clear is that the current Marvel-esque RSC version is a long way from doing justice to one of Shakespeare’s most eloquently written and emotionally tumultuous plays.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Miranda, i am convinced that you either sat through a totally different play or were in the wrong mood to watch anything decent without pulling it to pieces. I have seen quite a few versions of Macbeth but this vertion blew me away!
    Shakespeare is not performed with the aim of simplifying the story but, as with other art forms, asumes you know the basic story. Nothing was lost with this telling and the constant reference to time obviously did it’s job if it bothered you. The body count was designed to make the watcher uncomfortable not, as you say, to fill in the blanks. You really do have to make up your mind here; do you want the audience spoonfed the story or trust in their intelligence as both do not work. If you were expecting Shakespere for beginners then i understand your disappointment. This was a thinking persons play with suberb acting throughout.

  2. I agree with the review.
    I was particularly disappointed.
    I obviously cannot compare it to the Verdi opera Macbeth I had seen the previous week, except to say……where was the emotion and connection with the audience.

  3. Completely agree with this review. I so wanted to like this production but was distinctly underwhelmed by almost every element of it. Such a shame.

  4. A clear-sighted review. I was very disappointed by the production, more so given I had recently seen the RSC destroy The Duchess of Malfi in pretty much the same way. A director gets a Big Idea indulged, and a multi-media, interpretive production is designed around it, constricting and squeezing the play into such a strange shape that it simply doesn’t work any more. The end was laughable – a tremendous scene hobbled by the heavy-handed theatrical device of the count-down timer.

    Leaving that aside, I actually liked Niamh Cusack’s frenetic and impatient Lady Macbeth; so infuriated with her husband that at one point she was bouncing, both feet off the floor, shaking with range.

    Christopher Eccleston was a different matter. His interactions with other characters were sometimes compelling, but his speeches to the audience were flat. And why, anyway, in this fascinating, psychological play, where Macbeth comes to doubt everything that he thinks or sees, would you direct the actor to look outside the character’s rotting, blackening mind, and make him happily acknowledge the presence of the audience, addressing them in an almost conversational tone of voice?

    The real horror of Macbeth is not in what is seen, but in what isn’t. There’s a lot of reported action. Even the witches talk about evil thing they have done, but those lines were gone. And then there’s the brilliant moment when Macbeth can’t see an empty seat at the table. It’s a deeply unsettling moment of mental dislocation – a tipping point when normality becomes unreality, and it’s achieved with only one line: ‘The table’s full.’

    And they cut it.

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