RSC Macbeth review


Royal Shakespeare Theatre

This production of Macbeth hasn’t done well, mainly because the reviews when it opened were poor. I have seen it twice, the second time a month after I saw it in preview. They have made some changes, possibly in response to some of the criticism in the reviews.

I still think it’s a bit of a mess and inconsistent. But there are also lots of interesting things.

It is the longest Macbeth that you will probably ever see. The production at Shakespeare’s Globe plays more of Shakespeare’s text than this one does but runs at 43 minutes shorter. This means that a range of things is added to the RSC production. Some of the changes made after the previews work and others don’t. But it would be wrong to say that the production wasn’t worth seeing, even though it’s playing to half empty houses.

Every previous production I have seen has been about Macbeth. This isn’t. It’s about the witches. Perhaps the best moment comes right at the beginning when the witches appear (are born?) out of a barely perceptible trap door from what at the original Globe would have been hell. They appear throughout the play and greet each death, taking the dead person with them. They also attend the banquet. After the interval the witches appear with what might well be compasses. It’s a shame they weren’t used to create the red circle which was suddenly projected onto the stage floor. Interesting and thought provoking. Unfortunately the production has a dead bird (a crow? a bat?) thud onto the stage after a character’s death and remain there. At the preview there were thirteen of them, suggesting the medieval doom sign of thirteen dead crows. A month later, though, there were only eight. I have no idea why.

The setting is a bit hard to grasp. Perhaps it’s meant to be a post-apocalyptic world but why some of the stones on stage should have their upstage part painted gold I couldn’t fathom. An added scene is Macbeth’s coronation, using costumes which look as if they come from a British coronation and a huge gold curtained backdrop. The rest of the costumes are a bit unfathomable. The witches are in ragged earth coloured voluminous rags which create a splendid effect as the witches crawl animalistically about the stage. Macbeth wears tartan over-long culottes. Others wear bits and pieces which might well be left over from a previous world. Lady Macbeth wears an elegant dress. But why at one point she enters in a raincoat through rain I have no idea except perhaps that the witches use the word ‘rain’. The doctor wears a white medical coat.

The music comes from three brass instruments and bagpipes. The bagpipes disappear in the middle section of the play but reappear at the end. Some very effective eerie sounds are created, complemented by some spooky vocalisation by Annie Grace.

Director Wils Wilson cuts the Porter’s speech and has Stewart Lee write a long stand-up routine delivered by the accomplished Scottish stand-up artist Alison Peebles. Most people seeing Macbeth are familiar with Shakespeare’s Porter speech. Few can grasp the contemporary satirical references in this rewriting aimed at 18 to 25 year olds. It was all incomprehensible to me, to the GCSE students and to the mainly middle aged and elderly audience and seemed interminable. A glaring artistic misjudgement and failure. My American university students couldn’t understand a word of it. Neither could they easily follow the Scottish accents which everyone used (some better than others).

Duncan is female. His son Malcolm is female with a ridiculous hairstyle. The programme says that Donalbain is female, too. Banquo is female. Only two of the three witches are female. Why, with so many male parts played by females did the female Porter deliver a speech written by a man? Nonsensical gender chaos.

There were some good touches. The witches were great, fun to watch and embodied a coherent idea. Lady Macbeth burned the incriminating letter sent her by Macbeth and the smell of burning permeates the scene between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. There was a chilling moment after the banquet scene when Macbeth dismisses his wife. In the ‘Is this a dagger’ speech the three brass instrument and instrumentalists echoed the three witches. The lights appeared to fuse at the mention of Banquo in the banquet scene.

There is a lot of stylised movement and lots of tableaux. There is a much physical action with people throwing each other around. The interminable act iv scene iii was mercifully shortened but why a long white runner was introduced I couldn’t fathom.

There was some nonsense, though. Duncan, incomprehensibly Queen Duncan (Therese Bradley) was very flat and dull. This actor was better as Siward at the end. The murder of Banquo (Anna Russell-Martin) went on for ever. Macduff (George Anton) appeared to be killed along with Macbeth. There were no dead birds the second time I saw it for the death of Lady Macduff’s family (two of her children were played by puppets whose necks were broken). Maybe the worst of all (apart from the Porter scene) was that Macbeth brought on a microphone and stand for ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow’. Was this meant to be stand-up? If so it was painfully slow. Was it meant to suggest that because he was going to die tomorrow would never come for him?  Macbeth died behind the upstage curtain. Bathos time.

Acting? Passable I suppose. Mainly. I couldn’t get hold of Macbeth’s developing psychosis. Much of Reuben Joseph’s speech was monotonous.  Valene Kane was good as Lady Macbeth in the early part of the play. You would hear what she said, though, which is more than can be said of all the cast. But the stars were the witches played by Amber Sylvia Edwards, Eilidh Loan and Duncan Read.

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