April 17, 2007, by Peter Kirwan
Macbeth (RSC) @ The Swan Theatre
‘Macbeth’ is a play that has been done time and time again. Most importantly, it’s been done well. Trevor Nunn’s production starring Ian McKellen and Judi Dench is often held up as the greatest filmed Shakespeare, and films by Roman Polanski and Orson Welles have also had major impacts. Even the BBC version was uncommonly good and, more recently, Antony Sher and Harriet Walter starred in a highly acclaimed RSC adaptation. It’s never far from the repertoire of the RSC, and only two months ago Teatr Piesn Kozla showed their phenomenal work-in-progress exploration of the play, a year before the scheduled final performance. Added to the weight of the performance history comes the fact that this is the first post-Complete Works RSC production, and the last RSC Shakespeare to be performed in the Swan before its closure. Tonight, the last performance before press night, it played to a packed house. So, under all this weight of expectation, did it stand or collapse?
Perhaps it was the pressure of an impending press night, but the cast were clearly struggling at times this evening, in particular Jude Akuwudike’s Banquo, who stumbled over lines and ploughed on at an unsettling pace. I was also ambivalent about Patrick O’Kane’s Macbeth- at times he created a fantastic mood of unease and borderline insanity, at others he seemed to treat his words merely as a rhythm, speaking his words in an oddly disjointed way that seemed to bear little relation to the sense.
The criticism mostly comes down to some sloppiness in execution by the cast, however, and rarely concerns Conall Morrison’s mostly excellent direction. Apart from a badly staged scene after Duncan’s death, with the nobles all on different levels as they heard the news and having to strain oddly to talk to each other (looking as if they were on Celebrity Squares), the action was generally pacey and visually stimulating, rarely dragging.
The real triumph of this production, though, was in the witches. In an interesting conceit, the play opened with Macbeth and Banquo slaughtering innocents during the civil war, including brutally killing three women and their babies. As the two soldiers left, the women revived, and mourned their dead children. The plot was then motivated by revenge, as they contrived to destroy Macbeth for his crimes. Contrived as this may sound, it worked very well- the three women assumed many of the minor roles, such as servants and maids, and constantly watched over the action, nudging it in the right direction. It also led to fascinating moments- one of the witches, in a moment of sympathy, fled to Lady Macduff to warn her of the imminent arrival of the murderers, only to be silenced by the other two who held her down- her grief over her own child was compromising her own feelings towards their plan.
The production attempted to shock in places, and achieved some horrific moments, particularly as the pregnant Lady Macduff was impaled in her chest, the murderers scooping out the unborn child and thrusting it into her arms. The banquet scene was another effective moment- Banquo lay on stage from the moment he was murdered, and was reanimated by the witches, who dragged his dead body around the stage, making him wave and grimace at Macbeth as tables were overturned and the nobles fled.
The play revolved heavily around its theme of children (and childlessness), bound up with the witches, and Morrison created some beautiful images- Macbeth leaping to try and touch the suspended descendants of Banquo, the opening scene as he cradled a crying child before killing it brutally, and a fascinating and almost overlooked moment as the witch posing as the third murderer hissed at Fleance to fly while the other two murderers weren’t looking. This was the production’s reason for existing, and the thing which will hopefully allow it to stand up against the weight of expectation- the powerful, and very human, focus on the three witches throughout, coupled with the recurring motif of the child, made this a highly individual and poignant take on the play
I don’t believe the production earned the standing ovation it received, which I can only put down to a heavy percentage of student tourists in the audience (one entire row wearing masquerade visages they’d bought in the gift shop). Likewise, it has since received a pretty nasty critical lashing. However, there was a very exciting and innovative production at the core of the evening, although let down by careless performances. It has a long run ahead of it though, and even if I was disappointed at the execution, I thorougly believe in this production, and hope it goes on to become truly great.