April 29, 2011, by Peter Kirwan

Macbeth (RSC) @ The Royal Shakespeare Theatre

The first new production in the re-opened and redesigned RST is also the opening salvo of the RSC’s fiftieth birthday celebration season. Artistic Director Michael Boyd christens the new space with a production very much in keeping with his principles – no celebrity names but a lead actor, Jonathan Slinger, who made his name coming up through the RSC ensemble; and a major tragedy pitched at the widest possible audience, schools-friendly without being sanitised or simplified.

Tom Piper’s set was stunning. This Macbeth was set in a desecrated church, and costume placed us squarely within the English Reformation. Shattered stained-glass windows stretched towards the eaves; piles of rubble and holes in stone walls spoke of violent destruction; and wooden panelling was painted with Catholic icons whose heads had been scratched out. The symbolic significance of this scene of destroyed religion was emphasised by the changes in the second set to a more puritanical church – the windows were shuttered over, the panelling was bare, the statues removed. As the world turned, so too were the representations of religion destroyed and then covered over, subject to implied external forces rather than governing actions. Yet the church continued to exert a powerful force over the players, drawing them into its rituals and symbols in an inescapable way.

The living representative of these changes was Scott Handy’s unusually prominent Ross, priest to the regime. The play omitted the opening heath scene, instead beginning with three female cellists entering to a gallery and playing a low drone deliberately reminiscent of bagpipes. Then Howard Charles’s Malcolm entered, taking the role of the bloody soldier, and stood mute and aghast. From a balcony, the black-robed Ross spoke "Doubtful it stood." Malcolm stood silent, and Ross repeated himself twice, then made as if to continue with the lines; at which point Malcolm jerked to life and delivered his war report to the assembled nobles. The message was obscure at this point, but the scene was repeated for Malcolm’s concluding speech, as the embittered and weary Ross, again on a balcony, repeated three times "We shall not spend…" before Malcolm finally pulled himself together to speak.

The significance was in Ross’s transformation throughout the play. Handy’s elegant and conscientous minister was present for all the key action, and increasingly dissociated from the living characters to become an almost choric link between this world and the next. The Old Man was removed from their two scenes, allowing Ross to address the audience in soliloquy over his fears. Macbeth’s coronation was staged spectacularly, with Ross singing Pie Jesu and presiding as baptismal water poured from the ceiling and the Macbeths washed themselves ceremonially. On entering the home of the Macduffs, it was made clear that Ross knew the family well, and his closeness to the family was tinged with terror for their safety. In another soliloquy scene he cast his Catholic vestments against a wall, abjuring religion as his country fell apart, and his report to Malcolm and Macduff was grief-stricken. Later, he appeared marching with the ghosts of Banquo and Macduff’s family, stony-faced and resolute. In the person of Ross, religion was breaking down in the face of grief and onslaught, and had lost faith in itself – by this time, Ross was in military garb. As Macbeth and Macduff fought, Ross passed silently through along with Lady Macduff, aligning him closely with the dead and transcendent as much as with the living. It was in this key that he fed Malcolm his closing lines, falling into a liminal spiritual space where the dead ventiloquised the living, casting Malcolm as the puppet of higher orders.

The presence of the dead, as is typical for Boyd, pervaded the production. On a comic note, Jamie Beamish’s Seyton (who took the Porter’s part) came in as an Irish suicide bomber with a belt of dynamite sticks under his cloak. I say comic as the audience responded appreciatively; but this seemed a crass and horrifically insensitive trivialisation of this stereotype in light of recent events in Belfast. Beamish lit dynamite sticks and put them down in front of members of the audience identified as equivocators, causing the audience to squirm as the fuses burned down. To Seyton’s disappointment, they fizzled out; but he picked the sticks up and threw them behind a pile of rubble, where they exploded spectacularly. To the shrieking audience, he wagged a finger and reminded us "Never return to a firework once it’s lit". The historical relevance to the Gunpowder Plot was, of course, not missed. Clad in red, in an intertextual reference to the Keeper of Boyd’s Henry VI trilogy, this Porter became the keeper of Hell’s gate, opening a door upstage to admit the reanimated corpses of Banquo and the Macduffs after their slaughters, and Macbeth at the play’s conclusion.

The Witches were three children (two boys, one girl), who first appeared dangling from meathooks high above the stage. Tattered and with crosses daubed on their heads, they were clearly living corpses, alternately giggling and delivering cold prophecies. Later, it was revealed that the witches were in fact Macduff’s children, who appeared hale and healthy with their mother playing with the same dolls that had recently acted as the embodied demons of Macbeth’s second consultation (which concluded with the hideous image of hundreds of toy mannekins of Banquo descending from the ceiling). Macbeth’s black-cloaked murderers entered and broke the neck of one boy, slit the throat of the other and suffocated the mother; then, even more creepily, led the young girl offstage in silence. She only reappeared as the Porter summoned the bodies of the dead, entering by herself and quietly following the Porter into the gates of hell. Where other productions have done something similar by showing the witches as victims of war in interpolated prologues, it was cleverly anti-linear to have the corpse-like children prefigure Macbeth’s crime against them. The mother and children proceeded to stalk the stage, following Macduff during the final battles and accompanying Ross in cutting down branches of Birnam Forest.

Banquo (Steve Toussaint) was another strong visual presence, if not one of the better verse-speakers. Dread-locked and towering over the rest of the cast, he posed a significant threat to Macbeth and was ambitious in his own right, at one point giving Fleance a sword and mace and stepping back to see what his son would look like as a monarch. During the coronation a beautiful visual image was set up in the descrated church, with High Church ceremony and white robes on the ground level presided over by Ross while Banquo, the weird children, the Porter and the cellists gathered around the smashed stained glass windows on the upper level; Banquo already with one foot in the demonic world. His murder was effectively staged, with the murderers (Seyton was the third, though merely stood with a lamp) greeting Banquo as if a welcoming committee. They shook his hand and stabbed him; but he retained life long enough to hold them back as he screamed to Fleance to flee. Banquo’s body was left on the stage and revived by Seyton. Later, during the banquet scene (played without a table as a drinks reception), the Ghost smashed through a door, a piece of which Macbeth picked up and wielded as a weapon against his persecutor; then, in his second appearance, he entered with a knife and bloodily murdered Macbeth, stabbing him in the back and slashing his throat. The interval fell on this gruesome and frankly unnecessary scene; which was then replayed at the start of the second half without the Ghost, allowing us to see what the assembled courtiers saw and appreciate his apparent madness. This device, famously used in Rupert Goold’s recent production with Patrick Stewart, was here effective and allowed Slinger the chance to play up the comedy of the moment as he sat nonchalantly on the floor once his fit was passed and gazed up at his servants.

While the creative decisions made thus had some interest, the production was let down by generally weak or unmemorable performances. There were a few key exceptions – Scott Handy and Caroline Martin brought emotional edges to Ross and Lady Macduff in life, and a terrifying intensity to their roles in the final vengeance, that allowed us to invest in these relatively minor characters; and Nikesh Patel (an old Warwick student incidentally, great to see him on the main stage!) was a genuinely interesting Donalbain, tenderly seeing to his older brother in the opening scene, providing loud support for his father and offering a dynamic counterpoint to the more passive Malcolm, realised in a final battle against Macbeth that saw him dispatched hideously for his proactive stance. Howard Charles excelled as Malcolm during the England scene, bringing a melodrama to his performance of evil that rendered him truly fearsome in the face of Macduff; and the children worked hard in substantial roles.

It was in the lead roles that the production suffered. Slinger, one of my favourite actors, was a decent but uninteresting Macbeth, who most came alive in scenes of humour such as the banquet or his address to the cream-faced loon. He was strongest when standing atop a ladder that emerged from under the stage, calling for his armour as the English troops gathered below him. His habit of changing the pitch of his voice (high and colloquial for conversation, switching suddenly to deep for ominous moments or serious pronouncements) felt too self-consciously artificial, and the focus throughout on the visual rather subordinated the role amid the ghosts and spectacle, which Slinger was unable to rise above. A general through-line was discernable, however, with Macbeth beginning with barely-concealed ambition (his awkward bows to Malcolm and Duncan were particularly telling) and gradually distancing himself from his wife. In a production with so much pre-determination, however, Macbeth ultimately felt incidental.

More disappointing was Aislin McGuckin’s Lady Macbeth, a controlled and intellectually ambitious woman who brooked no weakness from Macbeth and was increasingly left in the cold by him. While there was nothing wrong with this reading, it felt out of keeping with the rest of the production, and her delivery of lines was rote and flat. She was most interesting during the banquet, attempting to play the formal hostess and desperately laughing away Macbeth’s actions. The sleepwalking scene passed almost unremarked as she scrubbed her hands in a bowl, shrieked a little and eventually saw herself offstage. Crucially, in a production haunted by the dead, she did not reappear after her death. Aidan Kelly’s Macduff and Des McAleer’s Duncan, meanwhile, were nothing more than functional.

This wasn’t a poor production, then, but an oddly flat one that took far more interest in clever links and visual style than in text or character. The good work in the minor characters was offset by run-of-the-mill leads, and the play itself became a vehicle for directorial style. There were moments of great work – I had never before, for example, felt the power of the description of Edward the Confessor during the England scene, which resounded wonderfully with the religious setting – but these were too few and far between. What will remain are the images, including the glorious picture at the end as Lady Macduff and her children ascended to the gallery and opened the shutters, revealing the sun shining through perfectly restored stained glass windows, a moment of hope at the end of a bleak play.

A version of this review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.

Posted in Theatre review