Macbeth, Trafalgar Studio 1, 23 February 2013
Jamie Lloyd set his production of Macbeth in a future Scotland ruined by civil war and social breakdown brought about by cataclysmic climate change.
The problem with a power struggle set in a ruined dystopia is that it is essentially a fight over nothing. This Macbeth overthrew Duncan and became king of little more than a dwindling stock of tinned food. The outcome did not matter.
This goes contrary to the play where insurrections against Duncan’s rule are being extinguished just at it begins, meaning that Macbeth’s own insurrection violates the ensuing peace. He helps to restore order and then becomes the principal agent of a truly chaotic disorder that flows not from any external source but purely from his own temperament.
The setting of this production shaped the portrayal of the principal characters. This, together with the relative inexperience of James McAvoy and Claire Foy in Shakespearean acting, meant that the result was unengaging at a dramatic level, however visually striking the staging.
The set was the dark inside of a ruined building with a wash basin downstage, scattered furniture, and a toilet bowl in an alcove. The sound of dripping water signalled the dystopian context.
After an initial sequence involving some soldiers in battle, the witches (Allison McKenzie, Lisa Gardner and Olivia Morgan) gathered in their combat overalls and face masks (1.1). They underlit their own faces with lamps to eerie effect. Not surprisingly the references to Graymalkin and the paddock were cut as the witches lit red smoke flares to create the “fog and filthy air”.
The lights dimmed and a sound like thunder sounded to mark the scene changes.
Duncan (Hugh Ross) questioned the bloodied Captain (Olivia Morgan again) about the course of battle (1.2). When Duncan asked if events had dismayed Macbeth and Banquo, she relished the trick of at first answering “Yes” and then adding the qualification “as sparrows eagles, or the hare the lion”.
Duncan was elderly and surprisingly spoke with a decidedly English accent, almost Home Counties RP, which sat awkwardly with the pronounced Scottishness of the other characters.
The witches appeared briefly and announced Macbeth’s arrival but without the following “weird sisters, hand in hand” lines (1.3). Because of her face mask, one of the witches’ words were blurred and indistinct.
Macbeth’s entry was an event in itself. James McAvoy ran onstage holding a machete in one hand and an axe in the other, his face and clothes soaked in blood. With hindsight, this bloody first appearance was a mistake. Fresh from battle and completely psyched-up by hand-to-hand combat, he growled in the face of a front row audience member, before returning upstage, banging his instruments of death on the ground.
The witches confronted Macbeth and Banquo (Forbes Masson) with their face masks neatly interpreted by Banquo as beards. They delivered their prophecies, but when Macbeth tried to question them more, the lights flickered and they disappeared.
It seemed incongruous that this warlike, aggressive Macbeth would in effect hide behind Banquo and let him do most of the work challenging these interlopers. His quiescence here suggested that the text did not justify the director’s initial portrayal of Macbeth.
Ross (Richard Hansell) and Angus (Callum O’Neill) were immediately seized upon, and Ross had to deliver his news with a machete held to his neck, such was the paranoia of the embattled comrades.
Macbeth’s contemplation of his “thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical” indicated the direction his mind was taking.
Duncan greeted Banquo and Macbeth; the latter made a jocular entrance by being brought in hooded like a prisoner before his true identity was revealed (1.4).
Despite Duncan’s affability, Banquo seemed nervous when addressing him. His “There if I grow, the harvest is your own” was said haltingly with a side-glance at Macbeth. Perhaps this was Banquo’s awareness of talking about “growth” in Macbeth’s presence, given the significance of the witches’ prophecies.
After Duncan bestowed his estate on Malcolm (Mark Quartley) the stage cleared for Macbeth to speak of his “black and deep desires” in soliloquy rather than as an aside.
Lady Macbeth read Macbeth’s letter out loud (1.5). It became apparent early on that Claire Foy was not an effective Lady Macbeth. As with many inexperienced Shakespearean actresses, there was a shallow brittleness to her portrayal of a character that demands power and depth.
She snapped at the messenger who brought news of the King’s arrival. Left alone once more she paused at length and then turned towards the door through which the messenger had just left to deliver her “unsex me here” speech.
Macbeth burst in upon her with characteristic vigour. Walking was never rapid enough for him. Their initial meeting and its hugs cemented their firm intention to murder Duncan.
A scene change saw Lady Macbeth grab a duster and spray an air freshener round her head as Duncan’s party entered. This made an unnecessarily silly joke out of Duncan’s initial comment about the castle having “a pleasant air”. It was as if the director were poking fun at the ridiculous way Shakespeare’s text refused to accord with his vision of the play.
Lady Macbeth was discovered lounging on the ground, which seemed unlikely given that the set indicated their residence to be a ruin too. As the royal party made themselves at home, the soldiers started ripping the ring pulls from cans of beer. The resulting spray accompanied their cheers as the hospitality flowed.
The toilet bowl was dragged from the alcove to centre stage just before Macbeth, again running at full pelt, rushed in from stage right and threw up into it (1.7). The vomiting indicated the nervousness underlying his desire that Duncan’s murder were best “done quickly”.
Here as elsewhere, there was no sense that Macbeth was a potentially noble man on a descent path. Rather than marking a new departure, he seemed to be acting in complete consistency with his previous self.
He directed much of his speech in the direction of the room he had just left. There was a long pause before he announced that only “vaulting ambition” spurred him on. But this Macbeth was so much the action hero that any sign of introspection seemed extraneous.
When he told Lady Macbeth that they would “proceed no further in this business”, she responded with hectoring sarcasm. As he listened to her accusations of cowardice, he brought his fingers to his lips trying to shush her before finally snapping “Prithee, peace”.
As Lady Macbeth swore to dash out her own baby’s brains, her husband tenderly caressed her stomach, a faint reference to McAvoy’s statement in an interview that the Macbeths’ childlessness was significant.
Her courage and constancy seemed to assuage Macbeth. She outlined how she would get Duncan’s guards drunk, and he embraced her again, full of love for his warrior wife who should “bring forth men-children only”.
Fleance (Graeme Dalling) was a young man rather than a child, which became apparent when Banquo discovered him kissing a girl, so that his “How goes the night, boy?” was slightly comic (2.1).
Macbeth was patently lying when he said he had not thought about the weird sisters.
The vision of the invisible dagger sent Macbeth reeling across the stage onto the floor stage left. This was a very strong reaction and a very realistic one. He grasped at the invisible blade in midair centre stage.
It seemed to disappear from his view and he moved stage right where he caught sight of the blade again, reeling backwards once more. He summoned his courage and approached it as if it were a fearsome enemy. He questioned the vision, putting an interrogative uplift on “Thou marshall’st me the way that I was going?”
Convinced that the vision lacked substance, Macbeth bent anguished over a table to say “There’s no such thing”.
The bell rang and Macbeth walked slowly upstage through the stage seats to do his duty.
No sooner had he vanished from view than Lady Macbeth entered via the stage right door and slammed it behind her fresh from drugging the grooms (2.2)
Macbeth appeared with the daggers, his hands covered in blood. But because we had seen him much muckier than this before, the sight of him drenched in Duncan’s blood made no real impact. He was comparatively cleaner than on his first appearance, so that the transformation conveyed no real shock.
The only register of a change in Macbeth came from the way he stammered over the word “Amen”, a speech impediment that would extend later to his faltering over other words to signify his inner turmoil. From this point on he would also expel sharp bursts of breath as if forestalling a panic attack.
Macbeth washed his hands in the downstage basin as the knocking at the door began. Lady Macbeth returned with her hands bloodied, but again this had little impact given the overall atmosphere of dishevelment. Shed blood in Macbeth has greatest force when on pristine white clothes.
The female Porter (Lisa Gardner again) was loud and entertaining, particularly when she protractedly spat at the mention of an English tailor (2.3).
She described the effects of drink on men without any of the lewd priapic gestures that often accompany this sequence.
As Macbeth edged nervously into the room, Macduff (Jamie Ballard) asked him if the King were awake. His reply “Not yet” verged on the comic and drew titters from the audience, which would work well in a farce, but not in a tragedy.
Macbeth escorted Macduff towards the royal chamber and then sat glancing nervously in the same direction when talking to Lennox (Kevin Guthrie).
Macduff returned looking stunned, but his repeated “horror, horror, horror” was surprisingly unconvincing. What was supposed to be a look of terror conveyed only leaden immobility.
The bell was rung in the form of a loud klaxon, which meant that Lady Macbeth’s question about the “hideous trumpet” was barely audible.
Macbeth confessed to killing the grooms and Lady Macbeth fainted. In the general confusion it was understandable that no one questioned Macbeth’s version of events. Malcolm and Donalbain (Graeme Dalling again) fled to England and Ireland respectively.
The brief recap scene saw Hugh Ross appear again as the Doctor (Old Man) in a wheelchair (2.4). This was confusing because he was immediately identifiable beneath his hat and it seemed for a brief instant as if Duncan had merely been invalided.
Banquo stole from Macbeth’s food cupboard and filled his rucksack with tins as he announced that his friend “hast it now, King, Cawdor, Glamis, all” (3.1). Macbeth discovered Banquo in flagrante delicto and his outward friendliness was undercut by suspicious looks, culminating in a rifle through the rucksack to discover the loot.
It was already possible to see that Macbeth’s attitude to “our chief guest” was changing to Banquo’s great disadvantage.
Macbeth had to usher his wife out of the room before having the murderers summoned and delivering his “To be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus”.
For some strange reason “issue” was changed to “children”, the resulting “For Banquo’s children have I filed my mind” seemed an unnecessary change. The term “issue” in context is perfectly understandable, no less opaque than “filed my mind”. Though it is possible this was one of the errors that McAvoy admitted occasionally making.
The murderers (Allison McKenzie and Olivia Morgan again) wore whole head masks, one a horror head, the other a pig. The pig head mask was perhaps a nod to the scene in McAvoy’s Macbeth in Shakespeare Re-told in which he butchered a pig’s head “from the nave to the chops” in echo of the Captain’s description of him in 1.2.
Macbeth gave them his instructions with special emphasis on including Fleance in the slaughter.
Lady Macbeth interrupted Macbeth’s chain of thought telling him “’Tis safer to be that which we destroy than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy” rather than saying it to nobody (3.2).
His mind wracked with doubts, Macbeth seemed genuinely relieved when his wife assuaged his fears about Banquo and Fleance saying “But in them nature’s copy’s not eterne” before hinting as his plan to have them murdered.
The murderers set upon Banquo and Fleance, surprising them by emerging out of the dark (3.3). Fleance escaped and climbed to an area immediately above the stage where, safe and sound, he looked down upon the scene of carnage.
Because of the post-apocalyptic setting, the banquet prepared for Macbeth’s guests was a grim stew served from a large catering casserole on metal plates (3.4). Emboldened by his kingship, , Macbeth made a joke of sitting astride the table facing his wife when he said “here I’ll sit in the midst”. Although table manners were not that important in post-apocalyptic Scotland, this provoked puzzled disquiet from the guests as Macbeth looked over his shoulder at those sat further down the table, before he broke into ‘got you’ laughter and descended.
The murderer appeared to bring his mixed news, and the dinner guests turned away into the set’s alcoves to provide some non-naturalistic privacy.
Invited to take the seat at the other, downstage, end of the table, Macbeth gaped at it in fear and recoiled in the same way he had reacted on seeing the phantom dagger. As he stared at Banquo’s invisible ghost, he faced directly down the length of the table and out towards the audience.
He approached the empty seat and screamed at it as the guests rose to leave. Macbeth regained his calm and sat in the empty seat only for the bloodied Banquo to appear out of the trap downstage and move to the opposite end of the table to Macbeth provoking another round of outbursts. This time Macbeth climbed onto the table, as did Banquo, leading to a face-off between them as the guests scattered.
The Macbeths were left to themselves. Macbeth’s comment “blood will have blood” prompted a splattering of blood to fall from nowhere onto the table. This was odd because there was no telling whether it was supposed to be real or an extension of Macbeth’s vision seen only by him.
Their quiet conversation culminating in his “I am in blood stepped in so far…” gave us a brief flash of Macbeth’s reflective side, which was otherwise too often subsumed under his action man persona. After this quiet moment the interval came.
The Hecate scene (3.5) and expository/recap scene (3.6) were cut, as was the Hecate, bubbling cauldron introduction to 4.1.
The second half began with Macbeth, still sat round the dinner table, summoning the witches, asking them “What is it you do?” almost as if talking to himself and not expecting their response, “A deed without a name”, which emanated from below the stage as a whisper.
Once they popped out through the traps, he demanded answers from them. Macbeth ladled liquid into his mouth from the casserole and then convulsed so that the voices of the apparitions was his own altered voice. He took a new gulp for the second apparition.
This was a clever idea but one which looked clumsy, almost comical in performance, particularly when McAvoy had to question the apparitions and have a conversation with himself switching from normal to possessed.
Having been warned about Macduff as well as being comforted by his indestructibility and the impossibility of a wood moving, Macbeth needed to know whether Banquo’s children would ever rule. The witches told him not to seek this information, but Macbeth defiantly picked up the casserole, cast aside the ladle and drank the contents straight from its wide brim.
The eight kings appeared as figures in grey fatigues and gas masks, with the bloodied Banquo reappearing from upstage with his hands outstretched to the appalled Macbeth.
The witches vanished, and when Lennox entered Macbeth grabbed him and forced him down onto the table to ask him if he had seen them.
Hearing about Macduff’s flight to England, Macbeth vowed to kill the man’s family.
Lady Macduff (Allison McKenzie again) sat at one end of a long dining table while her son (Ryan Elliott) sat at the other (4.2). Ross stood as if newly-arrived, told her of her husband’s flight, and warned of the impending danger to her.
After Ross left there was a long pause before Lady Macduff announced to her son that his father was dead. Unfortunately the first-time boy actor playing her son was softly spoken and barely audible even from the third row. Nevertheless, the joking about the bad people outnumbering and overwhelming the good was still funny.
Forewarned of imminent danger, Lady Macduff hid her son in a cupboard under the table.
The murderers burst in, and the first among them was Macbeth himself. This was perfectly consistent with his previous first-person formulations beginning “The castle of Macduff I will surprise…”
Macbeth cooly sat and watched as his two accomplices laid Lady Macduff out on the table and garrotted her with a length of rope, resulting in her protracted strangulation.
The business done, Macbeth was just about to close the door behind him to leave, when he turned back and addressed her dead body to say “He’s a traitor”. Young Macduff, still hidden inside the cupboard, rose to this affront and called out “Thou liest!”
Macbeth, still acting with complete calm, took his machete and with a swift, single stroke punched it through the end of the cupboard. Young Macduff screamed in pain as the bloody weapon was withdrawn.
The change of setting to England was marked by a ragged crowd of Englishmen carrying placards with slogans about the “green and pleasant land” together with “no sin” and other strange messages.
Macduff’s attempt to win over Malcolm was a long scene that was under-directed and lacked interest to the point of being soporific. Although Jamie Ballard gave his best, the scene was let down by Mark Quartley’s Malcolm in whom it was difficult to maintain interest. This was possibly the director’s fault because he ensured that the pace of the scene was slow, with Malcolm speaking very slowly, pausing between each word of his list of “king-becoming graces”. Instead of creating atmosphere or tension this only engendered tedium.
Macduff despaired and walked out the upstage aisle until Malcolm feebly called him back. He announced that his mind had been changed by Macduff’s “noble passion”. At this point, the possibility arose that Malcolm’s soporific delivery was intended to characterise his weakness. If so, it was not an efficient means. Malcolm resolved to fight.
Ross, after his initial equivocation, conveyed the news that Macduff’s family had been killed. Macduff’s reaction was restrained and, like his underpowered reaction to seeing Duncan murdered, there was a lack of fit between his words and their delivery.
Although he had tears in his eyes, the only genuine emotion seemed to come when he became angry and swore revenge. He faced the audience to shout that he should meet “front to front…this fiend of Scotland”.
The Doctor and Gentlewoman (Olivia Morgan again) discussed Lady Macbeth’s distracted state. The woman herself entered in a nightdress and carrying a torch, which she shone all around, even into the audience (5.1).
She knelt and placed the still lit torch by her side as she acted washing her hands and re-enacted recent events, with the Doctor clueless as to a cure.
This scene can often, in the hands of a skilled actress, be compelling. But here it was a case of going through the motions of a popular classic without any real feeling or depth behind the words.
A brief scene showed some Scottish soldiers advance and then discuss the impending arrival of the English forces led by Malcolm and Macduff, as well as Macbeth’s preparations (5.2).
Macbeth made a dynamic entry, sliding down a stage ladder like it was a fire pole, to order confidently “Bring me no more reports…” (5.3). He dispatched the messenger who brought news of the English forces with similar assurance, before getting Seyton (Lisa Gardner again) to put on his armour, which was some kind of stab vest.
The action froze and the characters from 5.3 were plunged into darkness as Malcolm, Macduff and others stormed the stage, the Scots with characteristic blue woad painted in two-tone shades on their faces, Braveheart-style (5.4).
As they were near Birnam Wood, they decided to use it as camouflage.
The invading army cleared the stage and the action switched back to Dunsinane as the characters who had rested in darkness were lit again and came to life (5.5).
A cry of multiple female voices, possibly a recorded sound, was heard offstage. Macbeth heard of his wife’s death whilst sitting down, so that his philosophical reflection on life was delivered from a position of comfort. He ran the first “Tomorrow” directly on from his previous thought, as if snapping into the following idea, then paused to continue with the rest of the sequence.
Yet again, this moment of introspection and reflection felt unnatural coming from this Macbeth. James McAvoy delivered the lines like it was something by William McGonagall. What is normally one of the highlights of any Macbeth fell flat as the man stared into the distance and spoke with shades of a dignity he had never possessed and so could not lose tragically.
A very scared messenger brought Macbeth news of the moving wood, which he dismissed not angrily but with impassive denial. His “liar and slave” was almost unemotional as if still stunned by the death of his wife.
But then he looked at the ground and began to laugh as if seeing the funny side of the equivocating trick the witches had played on him, before resolving to fight come what may.
The invading army bearing tree branches entered from the street through an outer door of the studio. A curtain was drawn and, as we glimpsed the houses on the other side of the street, the soldiers and their camouflage marched in before casting the branches to the ground (5.6).
Macbeth, armed only with his machete, confronted a soldier bearing a rifle (5.7). Despite the advantage of brandishing a firearm, the soldier was easily beaten by Macbeth, who brushed his weapon aside before beating him to the ground.
As he stood over his defeated enemy, Macbeth decided to finish him off properly with his blade, making sense of his “whiles I see lives, the gashes do better upon them” (5.8).
Macduff, armed with a similar blade, almost passed by Macbeth. But he recognised his enemy’s voice and ordered the hell-hound to turn.
They fought and Macbeth easily overpowered Macduff, dragging him backwards and holding his blade to his neck as if ready to deliver the coup de grace.
Macduff’s claim that he was “from his mother’s womb untimely wound” was like kryptonite for Macbeth. He relaxed his grip and let Macduff go. He threw aside his blade and, kneeling, said that he would not fight Macduff. As he knelt a shower of blood cascaded down on to him.
Refusing to yield too, he simply engaged with Macduff unarmed and was swiftly run through. Macduff broke his neck with an audible snap to finish him off.
Macduff bundled Macbeth’s body down a trap and followed it, disappearing from view.
As Malcolm surveyed the outcome of the battle, Macduff popped up from a different trap door with Macbeth’s severed head and hailed Malcolm as king (5.9). He proceeded to hold it above his own head so that the freshly-spilt blood tricked down over his own face.
He presented the head to Malcolm who held it gingerly while announcing the arrangements for his coronation at Scone. The stage went dark and for several seconds nothing happened until I clapped my hands together to kick-start the audience applause.
Eerily and frighteningly, almost everyone behind me was giving the performance a standing ovation.
Macbeth is not a play specifically about Scotland, in the same way that The Merchant of Venice and Othello are not plays about Venice, and Hamlet is not a play about Denmark. To make it specific is to reduce it.
Nowhere in James McAvoy’s Macbeth was there any indication of the noble person he could have become had he not succumbed to his ambitions. He began as a blood-soaked street fighter and ended just the same. The blood shed during the killing of Duncan only has the power to shock if it stains fresh, clean clothes, not dirty rags already encrusted with the blood of war.
With no descent from nobility of character there is no tragedy and no drama, just a series of events.
Macbeth, The Globe, 9 May 2012
The beginning of this Polish production from Teatr im. Kochanowskiego was intriguing. As the audience arrived, Macbeth (Michał Majnicz) and Banquo (Przemysław Kozłowski) sat in armchairs dressed in tracksuits, wounds bandaged, checking their phones with bored expressions on their faces.
Transvestite witches made their way on stage from the yard, teasing and joking with the groundlings. Instead of meeting the two soldiers on a heath, they actually visited Macbeth’s home to deliver gifts. One of the witches, Lola, fancied Banquo, which possibly explained the favouritism towards him in the prophecies they delivered.
The transvestite witches were frequent house guests. Although they looked unusual, there was nothing really paranormal about them to justify their powers of precognition. But they did provide some entertainment with their renditions of burlesque classics such as Mein Herr that peppered the action.
Duncan (Grzegorz Minkiewicz) dressed like a gangster in a natty suit with a wad of dollar bills sticking out of his jacket pocket. His son Malcolm (Adam Ciołek), looking like the wastrel scion of a crime family, nearly fell out of his chair when he heard that Duncan’s title would pass to him.
Everyone gathered at the Macbeth residence for a party. The transvestites were there. Duncan took his shirt off and danced with Lady Macbeth (Judyta Paradzińska) like a drunk in a nightclub. He did not have any of the virtues that should have pleaded against his taking off. Of the two, Macbeth seemed the sympathetic figure.
Lady Macduff (Aleksandra Cwen), the spitting image of Spice Girls era Emma Bunton rocked a pram. She seemed an unusual match for Macduff (Mirosław Bednarek) who, in his corduroy suit, resembled a seventies polytechnic lecturer.
Duncan slept off the night’s excesses in a chair. Macbeth crept up on him, but was surprised by Banquo. When Macbeth turned round we could see two daggers tucked in to the back of his trousers.
With Banquo gone, Macbeth stabbed Duncan in the stomach to the tune of Nancy Sinatra’s Bang Bang, the theme tune to the film Kill Bill.
One of the best features of this quirky production was the central relationship between the Macbeths. Lady Macbeth wrapped herself round her husband like a vine and he walked a few paces with her clung to him during their preparations for the murder.
Seeing the blood on her husband’s hand, Lady Macbeth immediately tried to wash it off, divesting Macbeth of his splattered clothes. This clever touch foreshadowed her own compulsive washing later in the play.
Macbeth licked the blood from her when she returned from laying the daggers by the grooms. When she realised the full horror of what they had perpetrated, she screamed, waking the other party guests, who raised the alarm on finding Duncan dead. The witches laughed at the dead body.
With no equivalent of the Porter scene, some subsequent action was telescoped into one sequence. Sitting on deckchairs in bathing suits, the men read in a newspaper how the grooms were prime suspects. Macbeth was proclaimed king, causing Banquo to remark on how Macbeth now had all he wanted.
Macbeth bribed, of all people, Rosse (Leszek Malec) and Lenox (Michał Świtała) with a suitcase full of cash to kill Banquo, which led us into the interval.
Chairs were set out in a line for the coronation party guests, and Macbeth ceremonially put on Duncan’s sequin shoes. The ghost of Banquo, whose murder was not staged, appeared in the line of party guests. Macbeth recovered from the shock by allowing himself to be fellated by one of the witches while Lady Macbeth, now pregnant, looked on.
Macbeth sought more assurance about his future from the witches who delivered more prophecies stood round a large dining table. He was particularly reassured about the impossibility of Birnam Wood moving to Dunsinane.
Lady Macduff watched as her children played with bubble blowing guns. The production’s all-purpose murderers, Rosse and Lenox, surprised the family and Lady Macduff was brutally raped and her baby strangled in its pram.
Macbeth overturned the large table and sat in it to watch Lady Macbeth sleepwalking with a bottle of sleeping pills. She washed herself in the same plastic bowl she had used to wash Macbeth. After a very moving display of erratic behaviour, she finally retired and downed the bottle of pills in one.
The scenes set in England were all cut so we saw nothing of the invasion preparations apart from Macbeth getting his armour from Seyton (Grzegorz Minkiewicz) and the news of his wife’s death. In one of the productions more touching moments, he cradled her dead body.
The English army in their camouflage jackets rushed the stage and crowded round Macbeth to kill him. They turned around to reveal t-shirts under their jackets bearing the words “Las Birnamski” the Polish for Birnam Wood.
And that was the end.
The big question was: where was Macduff? His wife had been raped, and his family murdered. Yet he said nothing and was invisible when Macbeth met his comeuppance. He could have at least led the English forces or said something to make the end of the play a fitting climax to the preceding action.
It was a pity that a production that had shown such promise in its treatment of the central characters should fail to treat the peripheral, but equally important roles, with the respect they required.
Without any of the scenes showing the preparation for the final battle, its significance was completely dissipated.
Looked at in this light, the transvestite witches began to look like a gimmick: an attention-grabbing feature that distracted attention away from the production’s glaring faults.
Macbeth, The Crypt St Andrew Holborn, 22 October 2011
The crypt of this church consists of three long arched vaults running parallel to each other, connected halfway along their lengths by a corridor and with another transverse space hidden beyond one end.
The first vault by the entrance stairs was used by Baz Productions as a foyer to contain the box office and bar, as well as a display of rehearsal photographs, blog printouts and a set of fluorescent tubes onto which lines from Macbeth had been stencilled.
Before the performance began the audience was ushered from this foyer into the second vault, which was lined on both sides by plastic stackable chairs.
Clothing particular to each character, with the relevant name printed on a tie-on parcel label, hung from pegs on the walls. However, these labels were not always legible and for this and other reasons prior knowledge of the play was often necessary to make sense of the action.
Three witches with single red gloves began the performance. They entered at both ends of the vault and through the central connecting corridor. In a hint of role transference to come, there was a nice touch as the words “fair is foul” were spoken by one witch, whereupon another cut in to supplement and correct saying “and foul is fair”.
The action flowed seamlessly into 1.2 with Lucy Bruegger in the role of Duncan. This was fairly static. As the characters indicated by oddments of clothing the emphasis was on the language, which was clearly spoken and a pleasure to listen to. Everything was characterised by clarity and a certain degree of elegance.
Back with the witches again in 1.3, “I’ll give thee a wind” saw one of them extract a sound from their mouth, humming and miming the action of drawing it out. This was copied by the others. Their respective “winds” were gathered together and taken to the end of vault where they were cast out through a rough hole. Offstage actors, unseen on the other side of the hole, continued the sound which echoed back into the vault. This was an excellent use of the space.
The witches stood at one end of the vault to hear Macbeth’s drum. They clasped their hands on top of each other for the “thrice to thine” speech.
Macbeth (Ffion Jolly) and Banquo entered through the other end. As Macbeth challenged them to speak they walked towards the centre casting their red character gloves to the ground and walked out the central corridor. Banquo picked up the gloves when describing how the witches had disappeared like bubbles.
After the brief 1.4 in which Macbeth realises that Malcolm stands in his way to the throne, the audience was told to rise from their chairs. We were then rearranged to stand lining both sides of the central connecting corridor for the start of 1.5.
Lady Macbeth (Katherine Newman), wearing her character’s red shawl, took Macbeth’s letter from its hook on the wall and read it out. As the central connecting corridor was only a few feet across, she paced up and down it only inches away from the faces of the audience.
She addressed some of her lines directly at individuals who could feel the heat of her breath. It was very effective to have this exposition of her intimate thoughts staged so intimately.
We stayed in this configuration through the next two scenes so that we got a close-up look at the arrival of Duncan chez Macbeth and also at the stand-off as Macbeth tried to back out of his plan to murder the king.
Macbeth’s vision of the spectral dagger was staged with a red-gloved witch holding a real dagger just off the ground, as Ffion Jolly’s Macbeth stood some distance away and contemplated the murder of Duncan.
Scott Brooksbank took over from Ffion just as Macbeth resolved “I go and it is done”. This was one of the few occasions where a change of actor accompanied a turning point in the character’s development. The implication was that the womanish milk of human kindness had at this point been replaced by something more manly.
The audience was moved on again to the third vault and sat on chairs and blankets in one half for the start of 2.2.
Macbeth returned from the murder with his hands full of rose petals representing blood. As he rubbed his hands together the petals slowly dropped to the floor. Another Macbeth appeared carrying the daggers which Lady Macbeth then took back into the grooms’ chamber. Lady Macbeth also returned with rose petal blood hands.
The porter scene had Ffion Jolly ask if anyone of us had murdered somebody. Her speech was completely off-text, but ended with the words “remember the porter”. This was an attempt at modernising the scene to create comic effect, which meant that the discussion of such things as urine and nose painting was cut.
After the discovery of Duncan’s murder (2.3) there was another invented scene with Scott Brooksbank sitting amongst us telling us that he has just turned 35 before talking to someone else about the large number of rats scurrying around outside. This seemed to represent the conversation between the Old Man and Ross about recent events and the resulting disturbances in nature.
An interesting twist occurred when, after act three’s build up to the murder of Banquo, one of the murderers deliberately let Fleance escape.
The haunted banquet scene (3.4) began with Lady Macbeth addressing the audience as if we were the banqueting lords. The ghost of Banquo was represented by a jacket which was manipulated by two witches so that its empty form appeared to creep along the ground moaning. This was very effective as the jacket really did look as if it was animated by a disembodied presence.
After the interval we were taken back into a space running across the end of the vaults. Scene 3.5 was cut so that the action continued with act four.
With the audience gathered around them in a semicircle, the three witches sat on a short flight of stone steps. They played with fibre optic cables emanating light from the end. After a shortened version of the cauldron sequence the witches indicated the pricking of their thumbs by placing their opposable digits over the end of their cables so that they glowed red as the light shone through them.
Macbeth (Lucy Bruegger) clambered through a hole in the wall and spoke to the witches. They delivered their double-edged prophesies and the show of eight kings was staged by a series of kings being flung to the ground from a pack of cards.
The audience moved back to the third vault and sat on ground again to witness the murder of Lady Macduff and her children (4.2). The murderers were equipped with a power drill and a saw.
Sound and light then emanated from behind our backs. We turned to see a video sequence, filmed in depths of the Barbican, projected onto the back wall showing Malcolm and Macduff in England (4.3). Macduff’s attempt to get Malcolm to fight against Macbeth was intercut with Ross setting off from the crypt and driving to the Barbican car park.
Video was used to emphasise that this action was far removed in England. But despite the cleverness of the idea the action appeared too static, with the trio of Malcolm, Macduff and later Ross stood around talking in a triangle.
Still in the third vault, we witnessed Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalk (5.1) lit by a candelabra with only two of its three candles present and lit. She scrubbed her hands of the rose petals previously used to represent blood.
As the play moved towards its conclusion we were moved back into the second vault where the performance had started. There was some invented dialogue about Macbeth having “completely lost it” and fortifying his castle, which castle was then attacked by the English army.
The killing of Macbeth saw Geoffrey Lumb’s Macduff run towards Ffion Jolly’s Macbeth with the lights cut just as they met. Only Macbeth’s jacket remained as Malcolm kicked at it in the final scene.
But what did it all mean?
I left the crypt in the strangest of moods. I could have quite easily described what I had seen but was for some time incapable of accessing my own reactions to the production.
This was testament to the novelty of its presentation of the play. It had tickled parts of the mind that are normally left untouched, so that the standard repertoire of responses to performance was inadequate.
The first few scenes had been lyrical and beautifully spoken with the cast creating something wonderful and coherent from the play. But notes of discord and dislocation entered the performance when the actors started to swap roles between them.
If this was an attempt to remove ‘character’ from the production, then for me at least it had the opposite effect. Offering up multiple versions of the same character brought home the importance of character.
Seeing one actor’s take on Macbeth, followed by another version of Cawdor, offered different perspectives that merged into one image. The overall effect was rather like a Cubist painting.
Five actors, three women and two men each brought unique qualities to the main role and each change of actor reinvigorated and stimulated appreciation of the instant rather than providing a sense of a unified character’s trajectory through the story.
Each combination of actors and roles became an ephemeral bubble to be appreciated in the moment before it burst, only to be replaced by another bubble.
This was enforced by frequent movements of audience to different parts of crypt and the long video sequence. The story took second place to the varying impressions generated by these constant realignments.
But there was a downside to this: if there were no ‘characters’ in the traditional sense, there could be no sustained relationships between the characters and no sense of development. Character lived in the eternal present and had neither past nor future.
This style of performance also meant that we saw a Lord and Lady Macbeth who never touched each other. And with no sense of their relationship, Macbeth’s sorrow at her death rung empty.
Director Sarah Bedi is to be congratulated on taking risks and being bold in her first production. This was an experiment to explore what happens when a play is performed in a very specific way. The result was intriguing, possibly more so than the safe option of a traditional staging would have been.
Stratford, 8/9 July 2011
Some additional insights gained from a second look at three of the RSC’s current productions.
The Merchant of Venice
The stunning opening Elvis number was great fun, its impact undiminished on a repeat view.
But at the other end of the production, the puzzling finale gained in clarity a second time around.
A conscious search for the meaning of Portia’s mad dance focused attention on a brief series of gestures that unlocked the mystery of the closing sequence.
Portia sat between the Antonio and Bassanio and glanced down as their hands clasped across her lap. She wrinkled her nose in disgust as she realised the true nature of their relationship.
The fact that it took two views to see this properly points to a problem with the production. Other audience members have found the ending of this Merchant confusing. This appears to have been a widespread problem.
The screenplay origins of the production could be to blame. Rupert Goold originally intended to make a film version of the Merchant set in Las Vegas, but ended up presenting this intriguing take on the story in the theatre.
The detail of the denouement could have been easily portrayed on film through close-up. But things work differently on stage and adapting this idea for the theatre proved problematic. On a thrust, with many looking sideways on, the crucial moment would have been difficult to see from all parts of the auditorium.
The need for significant staging elements to be immediately obvious and clearly visible throughout the theatre is something that should be considered by future RST productions.
Gregory Doran’s re-imagining of the Shakespeare/Fletcher “lost” play was well worth seeing again.
Regardless of the debate surrounding the play’s provenance, it worked extremely well in the theatre.
The Saturday 9 July matinee was recorded for V&A theatre archive. Three cameras occupied the back of the centre stalls to capture the action.
I managed to resist the temptation to send Greg Doran a postcard purporting to come from Lewis Theobald in reply to Greg’s open letter to the dramatist at the end of the published text of this production.
No additional clarity resulted from another exposure to this production’s quirky decision to have Ross as a priestly choric figure, prompting Malcolm’s opening and closing speeches, commenting on events, with all this amid what looked like a Reformation setting.
Untroubled by futile attempts at working out the rationale behind the cutting and rearrangement of the text to accommodate the revamped Ross, it was possible to appreciate the pressure and tension in the staging. This made Jonathan Slinger’s Macbeth more prominent.
There were gasps from the audience when Macduff’s children were murdered, which demonstrated the power of the story and its ability to affect profoundly first-time viewers of the play.
The shock of seeing the child witches hanging in mid-air lost no force the second time around. This simple yet most arresting image had a high degree of traction.
For some reason, possibly the result of ruminating on this production’s avenging ghost army, Macduff’s line about his wife and children’s ghosts haunting him stood out particularly. And of course at this point his family were actually trailing behind him, making his conjecture literally true.
London transfers of productions designed specifically for the new RST will not be able to replicate fully the precise stagings of the originals. Consequently it makes more sense to get a second glimpse of these productions in Stratford instead of waiting for a London performance that compromises on the directorial vision.
A deeper question is why two of the current productions require second views to appreciate them fully. A repeat look should be a luxury and not a necessity.
The search for innovation, for “original” stagings of classic plays, risks going beyond the audience’s capacity to register what has been done.
Macbeth, Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford, 18 June 2011
The first production designed for the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre tipped a nod to its Stratford home by including whitewashed religious paintings in its ruined church set. They were a direct reference to the murals in the town’s Guild Chapel defaced during the Reformation era.
Statues were missing and windows were broken. Smoke rose from piles of rubble upstage, creating a feeling of vandalised desolation.
As the house lights dimmed, three cellists, who sat throughout on the walkway across the back of the set, struck up an ominous low tune.
With scene 1.1 cut, the performance began with Malcolm speaking the Captain’s lines in 1.2. Or rather, it began with Ross, in what looked like a priest’s gown, stood on the stage left side gallery prompting Malcolm to begin.
Ross looked down at Malcolm and reiterated “Doubtful it stood” until the young man hesitantly began to speak, addressing his words chiefly to his father Duncan who stood downstage having entered by the centre aisle. Duncan’s lines were changed so that he referred to his “son’s wounds”.
This unusual staging was not explained by anything happened subsequently and the effect was confusing. It appeared to be an attempt to suggest that the action of the play was somehow a self-conscious performance, but of what and for whom?
Perhaps in this religious setting there was some significance intended by starting the production with the word “doubtful”?
Scene 1.3, which also began without its initial witch sequence, started from Macbeth’s “So foul and fair a day I have not seen”. This decision meant these words no longer echoed the witches’ equation between foul and fair. Their full impact, implying some kind of psychic link between Macbeth and the witches, was lost.
Macbeth entered by climbing through a broken window in the back wall. He descended the stairway, knelt to deliver his first line and turned his back on the audience.
As Banquo entered upstage facing Macbeth, three children suddenly appeared from the flies, dangling on ropes downstage in mid-air as if hanged. Banquo, who unlike Macbeth was facing towards them, saw the children first and addressed them.
Their limp bodies slouched lifeless for a while before descending to the ground. They detached themselves from the ropes and hailed Macbeth and Banquo in turn. The children then briefly left the stage (to have harnesses removed) and Macbeth’s line asking them to stay was brought slightly forward to this point as they ran off. The children delivered their prophecies on returning.
There was nothing particularly demonic about them. They were simply normal children with extraordinary greetings for the two thanes.
Macbeth tried to get them to say more, but they simply ran off laughing.
This staging was particularly effective in its simplicity and blotted out the memory of the less satisfying and more confusing use of Ross at the start of the performance. The production had gained an interesting feature that worked.
Ross and Angus entered upstage right with the good news of Macbeth’s new title, which was signified by the presentation of a medallion of office.
Macbeth’s aside, contemplating the meaning of these events, was calm and undemonstrative: a mode of speech was to become characteristic of him.
When he spoke of his thought “whose murder yet is but fantastical”, he seemed very matter of fact. This was perhaps designed to suggest his complete psychological unpreparedness for the conclusions prompted by his tactical mind. If so, it would be a sign of the surplus of human kindness for which his wife would later criticise him.
In the next scene (1.4) we saw that the practical implications of Macbeth’s murderous ambition were beginning to catch up with him. After his friendly reunion with Duncan, he heard the King proclaim Malcolm his successor and Prince of Cumberland.
At this point he did a stunned double-take as he understood the obstacles he faced. Time froze for the other characters while Macbeth moved around.
Interestingly, Banquo moved out of his frozen position to scrutinise Macbeth as he talked. He froze back into a different position and then unfroze in unison with the other characters. This was a subtle hint of Banquo’s special status and foreshadowed his subsequent ghostly appearances.
Our first glimpse of Lady Macbeth as she read Macbeth’s letter in 1.5 immediately showed her to be steelier and more determined than her husband. The letter’s wording and all subsequent references to the Weird Sisters were changed “the Weird Children”.
Lady Macbeth’s “unsex me here” speech provided the first truly chilling moment of the performance, more so than the weird children or her husband. Sharing an intimate, complicit moment with Macbeth, she whispered: “O! Never shall sun that morrow see!” This quiet line took advantage of the acoustics of the renovated RST that have improved audibility, although on this occasion it was spoken a bit too softly.
The King’s party arrived (1.6) and looked up at the galleries as if they represented the castle. Lady Macbeth entered via the walkway across the back wall of the set.
Macbeth came forward for his “If it were done…” soliloquy (1.7) to address the audience. The speech was informed by a kind of cynical sarcasm rather than terror or foreboding.
Macbeth began to express doubts to his wife about murdering Duncan. His second thoughts began to look consistent with his superficial temperament. He was capable of examining his options, but was scared by the prospect of the deed. Lady Macbeth was irritated by this, but remained firm.
Macbeth held a goblet in his hand, so that when Lady Macbeth asked “Was the hope drunk, wherein you dressed yourself?” she took her cue for that line from her husband’s drinking.
Lady Macbeth told him that he would be a man if he did the deed, at which point Macbeth began to stride off the stage left walkway. But something his wife said made him stop in his tracks and return.
A major turning point in the scene, and in the production as a whole, was reached when Lady Macbeth said that she would have dashed her own baby’s brains out had she so vowed.
This shocked Macbeth and his open-mouthed bewilderment at his wife was deliberately highlighted as a significant moment in the play. This was the point at which the reality of his situation struck home and the instant at which he found inspiration from the example of his wife’s resolve.
Returning to his wife’s embrace, Macbeth’s plea of “Bring forth men-children only” saw him placing his hand firmly under her gown clutching at her stomach, presumably the general area of her womb. This physical aggression towards Lady Macbeth was the first indication of a more vigorous and violent aspect to his character.
Act two began with Banquo training Fleance in the arts of kingship, principally the art of posing with his father’s sword in one hand and an orb-like object in the other. Banquo had obviously taken the children’s prophecies concerning him and his offspring very seriously.
The significance of this was not lost on Macbeth. He was only slightly mollified when the large orb turned out to be topped with a diamond that Duncan had given to Banquo to pass on to Lady Macbeth.
Preparing himself for the murder, Macbeth gave his crucifix to a maid, signalling the dark nature of what he was about to undertake.
Macbeth’s vision of the spectral dagger was staged simply, with the blade solely existing in his mind and not suggested to the audience by anything other than his grasping at it.
He drew a solid dagger from his boot in order to look at a real example. After seeing drops of blood on his dagger of the mind, he moved towards its apparent position. He passed through the spot and reacted as if the dagger had disappeared, commenting “There’s no such thing”.
The bell rang and he set off through the centre doors to murder Duncan. This staging was very reminiscent of the Cheek By Jowl version, except that it felt less powerful and less claustrophobic.
Lady Macbeth appeared through the upstage left entrance (2.2), looking a bit drunk. Just as she was describing her exploits one of the children ran shrieking across the stage and off the stage left walkway, representing the sound of the owl.
Macbeth entered with his hands and white shirt stained with blood.
Jonathan Slinger’s delivery here was rushed and sometimes garbled. This was a concession to psychological realism: a murderer with pangs of conscience would be garbled and confused.
But this was wrong on several levels. Foremost, an audience deserves to have Macbeth’s train of thought presently coherently. It is important that they understand his lines about hearing “Sleep no more”, which he blurted out. They are an important part in the development of his character as he begins his descent. Presumably, that was why they were written in verse.
Furthermore, Macbeth is a play infused with the paranormal and as such does not necessarily need to sacrifice clarity to strict realism.
The knocking at the gate was quite loud and this impending sense of doom went some way to explaining Macbeth’s trembling wish that the sound could awake Duncan.
The porter scene (2.3) saw the gatekeeper open his jacket to reveal what looked like a suicide vest packed with fireworks. This was the production’s only venture into the ‘gunpowder play’ aesthetic. But it was marvellously funny all the same.
The comedy of this sequence was enhanced by the traces of paint on the Porter’s face, which, because of his reference to nose painting as being provoked by drink, were an indication of his recent carousing.
In between complaining about the knocks on the door and itemising the various crimes committed by those he would admit as porter of hell gate (with special bile reserved for someone in the stage right stalls whom he took for an equivocator), he extracted the fireworks from the belt, lit them and placed them at various points on the stage and in the hands of an unfortunate audience member in the front stalls.
Disappointingly, they all fizzled out and were dumped in a corner of the set among the broken furniture and debris. They then exploded, causing the porter to caution the audience “Never return to a lit firework”.
Our first look at Macduff showed him to be a gruff character, one worthy of being Macbeth’s nemesis. The porter went through some standard provoke/unprovoke hand gestures to explain the effects of drink, but this bawdy comedy was overshadowed by the previous explosions.
Macduff exited and soon re-entered through the centre doors overcome with horror. Ross threw up on hearing the news. Macbeth, who had changed into a clean, white night shirt, then reappeared with his unblemished garment splattered with the blood of the grooms, just as his day shirt had been immediately after the murder of Duncan.
Macbeth’s angry riposte to Macduff, who questioned why he killed the grooms, was the first time in the performance that Jonathan Slinger turned on the angry, spitting mode he had used to great effect in Richard III. It just popped up here, as a reminder of his previous performance, only to pop back down again, never to be called upon in the rest of the play.
With Lady Macbeth carried out after fainting, Malcolm and Donalbain conferred downstage and agreed to flee Scotland.
The dialogue in 2.4 between Ross and the Old Man was rearranged to become a Ross monologue. He carried a lantern, which he indicated when referring to “the travelling lamp”. Macduff’s part in this expository scene was kept. As Ross was a priest in this production, his final line to the Old Man “Farewell, Father” was cleverly transferred to Macduff, making it that character’s parting words to Ross.
Ross reasserted his role within the production as a kind of prompter/narrator that had been established at the start. But again there was not much indication as to what exactly he was narrating. We can readily understand the story of Macbeth, but what story was Ross telling us? He seemed to exist in a world in which the play Macbeth had some significance beyond that which we give it. But what significance?
Ross remained onstage for the start of act three where he was the priest officiating at the coronation of Macbeth. If Ross was somehow meant to be providing some kind of narrative account of the Reformation, mapping that religious conflict onto the rise of Macbeth, a reading heavily implied by specific historical reference of the ruined church, then it was a problematic approach to take.
Firstly, the ruins of the church suggested that the Reformation has already got underway, in which case the character presiding over it would have been Duncan. If, on the other hand, we assume the usurper Macbeth to be symbolic of the Reformation, and Ross to represent the Catholic Church, then why was Ross officiating at Macbeth’s coronation?
Ultimately, this attempt to impose one narrative on top of another resulted in a lack of clarity that was deeply unsatisfying.
The coronation saw Macbeth and his wife undergoing a symbolic cleansing process. Ross sang Pie Jesu as the royal couple knelt and washed themselves in a shower of water that fell into a bowl placed between them.
Banquo and the weird children watched all this from the rear walkway. Banquo’s opening words “Thou hast it now…” were addressed to Macbeth in the process of becoming king.
This speech segued into Macbeth requesting Banquo’s presence at dinner that evening.
The newly crowned monarch was very jovial. After Banquo’s departure, Macbeth’s “To be thus is nothing…” soliloquy was not particularly chilling. And in the next scene (3.2), where Macbeth skirted round explaining his plot to kill Banquo and Fleance to his wife, it seemed that his mood was calm once again.
There was some excitement in 3.3 as Banquo’s murderers set on him. Despite being attacked by one of them, he was still able to hold back the second murderer who was trying to pursue the fleeing Fleance.
The second murderer eventually broke free when Banquo was killed, but by this time Fleance had escaped. After lying on the ground for some time, Banquo rose from the ground and the Porter beckoned him to depart through the upstage centre doors.
The crucial banquet scene (3.4) began in great style as the Macbeths descended from the flies on a bench, two seats were flown in at the downstage corners, and their courtiers began a stately dance in front of them. Quiet cello music accompanied the dancing.
The bench was flown out of the way and everyone danced around the empty stage rather than sitting at a banqueting table. The murderers brought the news of Fleance’s escape and the scene was set for Banquo’s ghost.
Banquo made a dynamic entrance by bursting open the rear door of the set, knocking it off its hinges. He stood in the doorway, as Macbeth railed and defended himself with a piece of wood, before slipping back out through the door.
For his second appearance he entered stage left on the walkway, briefly sounded the large bell, and then descended the stage right stairs. He advanced menacingly towards Macbeth, who threw his cloak at him. Banquo drew close to Macbeth and stabbed him. As Macbeth sank to his knees, Banquo cut his throat with a knife and the stage was blacked out for the interval.
The debris at the back of the set was cleared out for the second half and the broken windows of the church were closed off with shutters.
After the interval, the second Banquo appearance was replayed with Banquo absent. This time we heard the bell ring with no one touching it and saw Macbeth react to an invisible presence. He again threw his cloak and then collapsed as if being murdered.
This became something of a comedy moment. Macbeth collapsed to his knees, clutching his throat and gurgling like someone feigning an obviously fake injury. It was possible to feel deep sympathy for Lady Macbeth as she made her embarrassed excuses.
Macbeth’s “I am in blood stepp’d in so far” was matter of fact, almost to the point of being too nonchalant. There was no sense that we were watching someone’s sanity falling apart.
Scene 3.5 with Hecate and the witches was cut. Scene 3.6, which is normally a dialogue between Lennox and a Lord, was turned into another Ross monologue. He became increasingly frustrated and threw his priestly stole to the ground in disgust at events.
The initial witches/children sequence was cut from the start of the fourth act. Macbeth entered through a hole in the wall at the back of the set, descended the stairs again to confront the empty hooks dangling in mid-air. He addressed his “I conjure you…” to three bare rope ends, whereupon he heard the children laughing behind him. He turned round to see them sat on the ground playing with dolls.
These dolls were used as marionettes to deliver the first three prophecies about Macduff, “none of woman born”, and Birnam Wood.
When the children refused to answer his question about Banquo’s issue reigning, he drew his dagger and threatened them with it. They screamed and then ran off laughing as a large number of dolls with crowns were flown down. These represented the endless line of kings. Banquo himself appeared out of a rectangular trap door stage left, which was left open. He picked up the children and carried them out the centre doors.
On hearing of Macduff’s escape to England, Macbeth vowed to kill his remaining family at their castle in Fife, but his words were almost unemotional.
An inconspicuous detail delivered a shocking revelation at the start of 4.2.
We saw that Lady Macduff’s children and the weird children were the same.
Anyone familiar with the play would have realised at this point that these children were destined after their murder to become the “witches” we had been watching all along. Given that the witches could see into the future, there was nothing unusual about them being able to travel backwards in time.
The conversation between Lady Macduff and her son was very amusing. This, together with the sight of the two other children playing quietly, produced a cosy atmosphere of domestic bliss. The subsequent action was therefore all the more shocking.
With Ross watching from the stage left gallery, the murderers surprised the family. Lady Macduff was slowly strangled. One of her sons had his neck broken, the other was stabbed and the girl was simply led away. The sons lay on the ground for a while, before being ushered by the Porter to the centre doors. The girl reappeared on the stage right walkway and strode towards the doors. Macduff entered and tried to follow her, but the Porter shut the doors in his face.
This segued into the next scene (4.3) which saw Macduff at the English court talking to Malcolm. Duncan’s son was dressed in a white suit which, together with his formal pose, standing with his hands clasped in front of him, made him look like a member of a boy band. He had scars on his face from the wounds received during the battle described in the opening scene.
Malcolm really did seem to be testing Macduff. His words denigrated his own honour, but his demeanour was hawkish and assertive. This mismatch made it obvious that his line of reasoning was a ploy to gauge Macduff’s sincerity.
When he finally declared that Macduff’s “noble passion” had changed his mind, it felt as if Malcolm was announcing that Macduff had passed his security check.
The English Doctor appeared briefly on the walkway, while Ross entered with his bags through the centre aisle of the stalls. His equivocating answers to Macduff’s questions about his wife and family were believable: Ross appeared unprepared to tell Macduff the truth immediately.
When Macduff did finally cotton on and the truth came out, the passion and honesty of his feelings were impressive. In this respect, he was contrasted with Macbeth, who appeared to be inhumanly cool and dispassionate much of the time. This opposition of temperaments prepared us for their physical opposition in battle later on.
Lady Macbeth appeared on the stage left walkway carrying a candle in a holder at the start of act five. With Seyton sat on the edge of the gallery watching, she knelt down on the ground and acted out washing her hands. She rose and went to the rear doors and re-enacted previous events and conversations with her husband.
The Scottish rebel force that appeared for 5.2 was led by Ross and was composed of the ghosts of Macbeth’s victims, including Banquo, Lady Macduff and her children.
Macbeth was flown in on a chair for 5.3. He descended gracefully, announcing that he required no more reports. The servant who told him of the advancing army was rewarded by having his face cut. Instead of letting the boy prick his own pale face to “over-red” his fear, Macbeth did the job for him with this cruel act.
Macbeth returned to the chair and sat calmly to tell us “I have lived long enough”. He rose to speak to Seyton, who appeared to be the same character as the Porter. Seyton was still sat on the rear walkway with his feet dangling over the edge. He answered Macbeth’s questions unhurriedly.
The Doctor as absent here, so that Macbeth’s questions to him were answered by Seyton. This created a simpler, less cluttered staging that enhanced the feeling of languor resulting from the slow pace of the sequence.
As Macbeth put on his armour on the main stage, Malcolm and the English army appeared on the walkway for 5.4. The order was given to cut down and carry the trees of Birnam Wood. As the army departed, a ladder slowly rose out of the centre trap for 5.5. Macbeth climbed onboard and was carried upwards as it ascended. This was meant to represent his castle walls that could “laugh a siege to scorn”.
The newly rebuilt RST boasts a 7m basement. The staging here, with an enormous ladder ascending majestically with Macbeth on top, seemed designed to showcase the theatre’s enhanced technical facilities.
The cellos made a discordant sound for the cries of women that heralded the death of Lady Macbeth. Her husband spoke his “Tomorrow and tomorrow…” from the top of the ladder. This looked faintly ridiculous. The calm dignity of the moment was overwhelmed by the lines being delivered at high altitude by an actor who was obviously trying very hard not to look down. He clicked his fingers at each “out” directed at the “brief candle”.
During this and other scenes of discord, the warm stage lighting was replaced by the harsh glare of industrial strip lighting arranged in two parallel lines down the depth of the stage.
With Macbeth still atop his ladder for 5.6, the Scots entered from stage right and met the English appearing stage left as they carried their boughs onstage. Lady Macduff and her children planted theirs in the stage left trap, which had been open since Banquo burst out of it.
Macbeth (5.7) found himself “tied… to a stake” up his ladder, but it descended. Macbeth threw away his sword and used a dagger to kill his first adversary, underlining his sentiment “But swords I smile at”.
Macduff entered looking for Macbeth. Lady Macduff and the weird children followed him, which illustrated the truth of his statement that if someone other than him killed Macbeth “my wife and children’s ghosts will haunt me still”.
Macduff was on the main stage for 5.8 while Macbeth stood on the centre aisle step. Banquo and the ghost army appeared upstage. Macduff told Macbeth to despair his charm, and Macbeth immediately requested him to “lay on” without the intervening dialogue. This preserved the momentum of the action.
As they fought, each with two swords, one of the children run through, distracting Macbeth and thereby allowing Macduff to strike a fatal blow. Macbeth died and fell to the ground, where he remained during the next scene.
For the final sequence in the production, the shutters were removed from the windows at the back of the set showing them to be restored. Light shone through them again suggestive of the passing of darkness.
The weird children stood over Macbeth’s dead body, which lay where it fell, and looked on without emotion.
The scene became an almost exact replica of the opening scene. The dead King Duncan reappeared and took up position where he had done at the start of the performance. Malcolm stood in roughly the same place with almost identical battle wounds on his face, these ones fresh from the fight with Macbeth’s forces.
Macduff hailed Malcolm as King of Scotland, and Ross was again required to prompt Malcolm by repeating his first words of his speech “We shall not spend…” several times.
Macduff also saw his daughter but did not embrace her, implying that she was still dead and the contact was ghostly rather than between the living.
As the stage emptied, sombre cello music intoned as Macbeth rose from the ground and walked to the centre doors, where the Porter stood waiting for him.
This was an odd Macbeth that put a premium on gimmicky innovation rather than a clear, powerful character arc for its protagonist.
The recasting of Ross as prompter was a clever idea that for all its ingenuity was never satisfactorily explained.
However, the weird children were a great success. The revelation that the unearthly children that had descended as if hanged at the start were Macduff’s children was oddly comforting. Whatever horrors they were about to undergo, they had, by way of a temporal paradox, already exacted their revenge.
We could do with some more wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stagings in other Shakespeare plays.
Macbeth, BBC Four, 12 December 2010
Tempted by tricksters into pursuing illusory dreams of glory, a set of deeply unlikeable characters took their first faltering steps towards their sordid ambitions, only to find themselves plumbing the depths of depravity in a spectacle of gut-wrenching terror.
But enough about The X Factor. A high-minded cultural alternative was on offer at the same time over on BBC Four, which had decided to schedule Rupert Goold’s film version of his stage production of Macbeth against the TV talent show.
The film proved itself to be a more complete realisation of what were obviously the cinematic ambitions of the original theatre production.
The Chichester stage set had featured a lift that transported characters in and out of the subterranean world of the play. Much of the action centred on a tiled kitchen with a white sink prominent throughout. Newsreel of Soviet era battles was projected onto the back wall to complement the cast’s contemporaneous uniforms.
Macduff’s murder took place in a train carriage, which was suggested to our imaginary forces by chairs, straphangers and sound effects. The witches were nurses, cooks and servants whose malevolent presence punctuated the action.
So to see all of these features given an extra level of screen realism forcefully hinted that the stage production had been Goold’s imperfect attempt to make concrete his particular vision of the play, a project that could only be fully accomplished via the medium of film.
The film maintained the original production’s reversal of the first two scenes enabling the general historical context of the play to be set out, only then to focus on the witches and their role in the action.
The first meeting with the witches, as Macbeth and Banquo entered the empty vastness of the ballroom and found his nemeses stood in rigid formation around their drip stand mannequin with its bleeding heart and glasses, was an arresting sight. They acted throughout like an insurgent robot army from another dimension.
Welbeck Abbey with its underground ballroom and tunnels was perhaps the only location in the country where filming could reproduce the implied world of the stage version.
But with film to play with, Goold eventually took the brakes off his imagination completely and let it rip.
The speeded up movements and echoey distorted voices of the nurses as they prepared to give Macbeth electrostatically charged premonitions of his fate using reanimated corpses, created a sequence that assaulted the senses with its exhilarating display of otherworldly power.
Their trochaic tetrameter pounded out like a rap, at which point Akala of the Hip Hop Shakespeare Company, if he had been watching, would surely have sat upright and started taking notes.
The other big advantage of film is its ability to show us the close-up detail of a performer’s facial acting.
Having realised the full implications of his vaulting ambition and with his face filling the screen, Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth looked off into the darkness with small pin-pricks of light shining from his eyes to tell us “Stars, hide your fires! Let not light see my black and deep desires”.
When gazing on the vision of Banquo’s heirs, Macbeth’s head loomed so large that this lower jaw and forehead were cropped out of shot. His dead eyes told us just as much as his words.
But this world of close-up was one in which the more dramatic features of Kate Fleetwood’s Lady Macbeth became the true gauge of the couple’s downward spiral.
While Macbeth gave us a series of variations on the theme of grim, every new gradation of his wife’s decline from guilt into despair, madness and self-destruction was etched in detail onto the hypnotic, geometrical contours of her face.
However, as if to underline that no medium is ever perfect, film also showed itself to have its disadvantages.
Although this version of the stage production could show us more detail than a front row seat in the Minerva Theatre ever could, it was still restricted by its basis in a theatre text rather than a film screenplay.
There were some minor excursions to show us Macbeth’s purges, but the medium felt underused for having only to replicate a series of events that were originally presented in a theatre.
The stage production had an interval in the middle of the banquet scene which enabled a neat trick to be performed that was not reproduced in the screen version.
Just before the break, Banquo appeared and walked the length of the dining table causing Macbeth to react in horror. This action was cut short by the interval. After the audience returned for the second half the appearance of Banquo was repeated, but this time with Banquo invisible and Macbeth reacting to thin air.
The BBC Four production was a slick studio album compared with the urgent warts-and-all immediacy of NT Live, which still remains the best medium for conveying the excitement of live performance.
But as television adaptations of Shakespeare go, this has to count among the very best.
Shame then, that the overnight viewing figures showed that just 252,000 viewers or 0.8% of the available audience watched the broadcast.
The good news is that a DVD of this Macbeth is to be released next year.
An interview given by RSC artistic director Michael Boyd has confirmed that Jonathan Slinger is to star in a production of Macbeth that Boyd is directing as the first offering in the company’s 50th birthday season at the rebuilt Royal Shakespeare Theatre.
Slinger’s series of memorable performances in the RSC History Cycle, topped by his monstrous Richard III, left no doubt that his career was one to watch very closely.
So it has come to pass that he has been handed the ultimate bad guy role in a landmark production that should set the tone for the RSC’s onward journey.
But what we will be seeing next April will not be a shot in the dark with a new space being road tested by ingénues finding their way around an unfamiliar structure.
More than four years of experience has already been gained from work at the Courtyard, the prototype thrust stage theatre from which the new RST has effectively been cloned.
This means that the first production designed for the RSC’s brave new world will be in fact the latest iteration of a formula that has already been garnering praise for quite some time.
Slinger himself was there right at the start of the Courtyard period and has accumulated considerable experience of the new thrust stage environment from his History Cycle work.
The launch of the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre with a rip-roaring epic like Macbeth; an actor cast in the title role who has already thrilled theatregoers gathered around a thrust stage with his scarily powerful interpretations of Shakespearean villains; and this in a space designed to promote an intimate relationship between cast and audience: it all looks like a grand way to begin a new era.