March 12, 2009, by Peter Kirwan

Macbeth @ The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Matthew Dunster’s new production of Macbeth for the Royal Exchange fits neatly into recent fashions regarding the staging of this play. It emphasises the Weird Sisters, bringing them onstage throughout the action, contemporises events and has a particular concern with children, some or all of which were exemplified by the most recent RSC and Chichester productions, as well as films such as Gregory Doran’s TV adaptation of his RSC production and Penny Woolcock’s Macbeth on the Estate, these last two both referenced in the programme. Yet Dunster adds to this trend with a thought-provoking and often shocking production with a clear focus and inventive staging.

Central to this production were the Weird Sisters – here, three young girls, playing in their bedroom as the audience filed in to the auditorium. The in-the-round Exchange made for a particularly intimate setting, in which the girls played and chanted sweetly. With a sudden crash, though, soldiers ran in, threw the girls off their bed and created barricades for themselves, the sisters screaming and cowering together as machine guns and helicopters drowned out all other noise. Macbeth and Banquo then entered, shooting the enemy soldiers in the head, and proceeded to abuse the girls, Macbeth grabbing one by the hair while Banquo graphically raped another. The sisters became the witches in response to their trauma, comforting each other as they tried to make sense of the world and finding their power in their unity; the raped sister, for example, lost her voice (her tongue cut out?) after the act, but her younger sister held her fingers to her throat and ventriloquised for her. Later, the raped sister found her voice in speaking the words going through Macbeth’s head, projecting taunts into his mind.

The Sisters were thus given clear motivation for their persecution of Macbeth and Banquo and became involved on stage in all the important actions leading to their respective falls. One girl hovered near the murderers as they attacked Banquo, helping Fleance escape while laughing nastily as Banquo was repeatedly kicked and stabbed. The production’s primary aim seemed to be the exploration of the effects of war on children, showing the girls increasingly desensitised to violence and their own bodies. The second act began with the three witches begging, dancing to a violently militaristic rock tune, exhibiting themselves and acting out being shot in the head before shaking a tray of coins and starting again. The raped sister withdrew into herself, rarely making eye contact with anyone else, while the sister who had been manhandled by Macbeth donned soldier costume and became increasingly violent and assertive. Macbeth’s final meeting with the girls saw them dancing again, kissing and groping one another for his ‘entertainment’.

The graphic content of the Sisters’ scenes was unsettling and often upsetting, the lives of the children (one an actual child, the others young and small adult actresses) destroyed by the extreme violence around them. As the girls progressed through the play, their eyes became visibly deadened, and the rituals of the witches seemed to be their constructed way of coping, such as their casual bloodletting before summoning up their masters. It was painful to witness, and one found oneself in the unusual position of sympathising with the witches in their ongoing persecution of Macbeth. This hugely effective central concept dominated the production and brought challenging resonance to the story.

The updating to an alternate contemporary world (described as “A Scotland, in a Europe, 2009”) was largely successful. Nobles marched about in fatigues and messages were delivered by e-mail and text. Interestingly, technology got around the ‘problem’ of Ross’ initial pretence to Macduff that his wife was well, by having Ross genuinely believe that was the case until receiving a text later in the scene reporting the murder. Lady Macduff’s sleepwalking took place in an institution, with doctor and nurse peering through a window as they took notes on her behaviour, while a modern war room with tactical computers was re-created for the final battle. This was a fast world of instantaneous communication and unstoppable forces, with no time to take stock or question what was happening. This could most clearly be seen in Heather Peace’s Lennox, a soldier in Duncan’s army who became increasingly uncomfortable with what she overheard while standing guard at Macbeth’s door. The final orders to have Macduff’s family killed were more than she could bear, and with a great wrench she tore the stripes of his army off her sleeve and ran off to join the enemy. Events moved at such a speed that even questioning the status quo became an active act of resistance.

Doubling decisions brought out interesting links between sections of the play. Malcolm and Donalbain, having fled under suspicion of being murderers, were brought back as the two Russian heavies employed by Macbeth to kill Banquo. Banquo and Fleance, meanwhile, were reunited in the final act as the doctor and nurse employed to minister to Macbeth and his queen, allowing Banquo a presence as his enemies fell. Perhaps most powerful, though, was the appearance of the two elder witches, now dressed as adults, as Lady Macduff and a Nurse. Rebecca Callard’s Lady Macduff, having been raped in her earlier appearance as a Weird Sister, was now forced to undergo new horrors as Seyton and the murderers invaded her kitchen, drowned her son in the kitchen sink and then snapped her neck, while off-stage her baby and its Nurse were shot.

The production’s core concept and impressive work in the supporting roles, however, came at the expense of the leads. Nicholas Gleaves and Hilary Maclean were decent as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, but with the production’s emphasis so firmly elsewhere it was difficult for either to make an impression. Gleaves’ Macbeth, a monster from the start in his treatment of the Sisters, was unsympathetic, and the rather self-conscious device of shining a spotlight on him for every aside actually served to isolate him further within the on-stage crowd rather than connect his private thoughts with the audience. Gratuitous nudity as he showered after Duncan’s murder also lent nothing to the production except the titters of a school group in the gallery. Yet Gleaves was effective when allowed to simply act, and he gave a particularly strong performance as the English troops massed; borrowing from Richard III, his Macbeth dithered and ranted, shouting for Seyton when Seyton was directly in front of him while the Doctor hovered with a syringe. Macbeth’s growing insanity was well-realised, and the decision to allow him to act relatively independently of the witches in his final scenes was a good one, making him responsible for his own final actions (at least, until the gun he pointed at Macduff misfired, allowing Macduff to stab him).

Maclean’s Lady Macbeth felt relatively unimportant in the production, but was particularly strong in her first scenes as she read Macbeth’s e-mail and then played host to Duncan. Some history seemed to be hinted at between Duncan and Lady Macbeth, he clearly angry and barely able to look at her when she arrived to greet him to her castle. She matched her husband in strength, but disappeared from view and memory during the second half. The trappings of her scenes distracted from her performance : the grotesquely bloody Banquo and leering witches at dinner, the transparent screen and hospital paraphernalia during the sleepwalking scene. While the scenes remained effective, it was almost as if we were having the focus deliberately taken away from her performance, which seemed a shame.

There was plenty of interesting work in the other performances although, as with the leads, the concept and staging detracted from the actual acting. Christopher Colquhoun was a solid Banquo, posing a genuine physical threat to Macbeth; Jason Done’s Macduff showed powerful grief as he received the news of his wife’s death; John Stahl’s older Ross was increasingly crestfallen at the growing chaos and almost wept at Duncan’s death; and John MacMillan’s Malcolm grew from a scared child to a strong leader, drilled by Seyward in England and commanding during the final battle.

The play concluded on an odd note. Malcolm’s final speech to his soldiers became a rehearsal, as he began running over lines again and again, repeating them to try and get the sound right. Servants entered and removed his fatigues, dressing him in a now-familiar suit, shirt, red tie and black overcoat. MacMillan’s superficial resemblance to Barack Obama was made gradually explicit, and we were put in mind of the statesman preparing for inauguration, practising his lines before stepping out before the crowd. As he left the stage, and videos showed him taking a podium, the witches reappeared with Fleance and gave him a gun, anticipating Malcolm’s imminent assassination. This failed to work on two levels: the first is that the witches, within the play, had clear motivations for their pursuit of Macbeth and Banquo, and there appeared to be no reason in the production’s internal logic that they should turn their attentions to Malcolm, other than for the simple continuation of violence. The second is that the parallel itself was fairly superficial; nowhere else in the production were we put in mind of actual political situations. The link felt gratuitous, allowing for an immediate murmur of recognition but not adding anything of substance to either Obama’s or Malcolm’s stories.

Small gripes aside, however, this was an effective and often moving production, one that refused to shy away from violence and forced us to consider the effects of our actions on the young. A powerful appropriation of Shakespeare.

This review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.

Posted in Theatre review