Thursday, March 15, 2018

Macbeth at The RSC

It was our second RSC visit of the year, and month (everything we wanted to see is bunched up together this season) last night, this time to see Macbeth. I think this is the 3rd time I've seen it, the 2nd time at the RSC.

The last time was 1999 with Harriet Walter and Anthony Sher in the Swan. Memories of that performance are a little vague now (what I do recall was some very effective use of drums, no interval, and Harriet Walter being amazing). The first time I saw it was a student production in the quadrangle of Kings College in Aberdeen. It was a chilly kind of night, dusk was gathering, and tremendously atmospheric.

This current production has Christopher Eccleston and Niamh Cusack as Macbeth and his lady, and is framed as the first horror film (in an introductory piece by Peter Bradshaw of The Gaurdian), the set, helped by that price in the programme, recalls Carrie and The Shining. I'm not convinced by the horror film/story argument - wouldn't Hamlet or King Lear be better contenders for that description? The murderous events in Macbeth are no more horrifying than those in Richard III, and all in a day's work for anyone looking to be king of Scotland in the 11th century. I would buy into the idea that it's the first noir thriller (which Bradshaw dismisses).

The witches are played by 3 young girls in onesies and slippers, clutching baby dolls. They sometimes send a chill down the spine, but they were also quite difficult to hear at times, and because they're used to move most of the furniture on and off stage they lose a lot of their weirdness quite quickly.

There is also a particular focus on time in this production, including having a clock count down to the end of the play just above the stage. There's a risk when you do that, that less enthusiastic audience members will spend their time clock watching, judging by the number of school kids annoyed by the fact that Macbeath died before the count down was quite done last night, they had been doing just that. I wish I'd asked them if they found the projected quotes above the stage that signposted the key theme of each act helpful.

Ecclestone and Cusack where brilliant though. This Macbeth is an ambitious man, a soldier used to violence, who is slighted by Duncan even as he rewards him, the seeds of Macbeth's treachery are sown early. Cusack's Lady Macbeth mixes her ruthless ambition with a vulnerability that encourages sympathy for her as her mind begins to collapse under the strain of guilt. As a couple they're both convincing and compelling as they set themselves up to meet their fate. Macbeth's letters fuel her ambition, her resolve pushes him to murder Duncan, but it's his insecurity that leads to Banquo's death and the slaughter of Macduff's children which in turn brings final disaster.

What isn't really explored here is Macbeth's lack of children and how it motivates him, everybody else seems to have them, even Lady Macbeth (the real Lady Macbeth had been married and had at least one son, who briefly succeeded his stepfather as king of Alba, before she was married to Macbeth, who was probably the man who killed husband number 1). What exactly is the nature of her taunt when she talks of having given suck to her own babes? It's hard not to think about how Henry VIII's difficulties producing children motivated him, or the lack of Tudor heirs thereafter, or the mess that Mary Queen of Scots got into.

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