The unearthly children

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.

Double-take

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.

Training

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.

Fireworks

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?

Coronation

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.

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.

England

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.

Ladder

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.

Conclusions

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.

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