April 11, 2018, by Peter Kirwan
Macbeth (RSC Live from Stratford) @ Nottingham Broadway
At the moment of Duncan’s death, a timer set at two hours appeared on the upstage wall, and began counting down. Polly Findlay’s Macbeth – and Christopher Ecclestone’s titular monarch – shifted from that point into an inevitable decline, the ever-present clock reminding Macbeth of the inevitable consequences of his fatal action. And with two minutes to go, Edward Bennett’s Macduff wrestled with Macbeth, the two grappling in a desperate, time-pinched struggle. Until, in the final ten seconds, Macbeth got up, said ‘Enough’, and allowed Macduff to slit his throat.
This moment was the climactic anticlimax of many in Findlay’s over-busy Macbeth, a production built around a number of concepts that never fully cohered, and whose contrivances created other problems. I spend another time checking my watch in the theatre as it is without needing an onstage timer reminding me of quite how long I’ve got left to sit through, and I found that the clock slowed the sense of time down to a crawl, removing any sense of spontaneity or urgency (at least until the final seconds). It reminded me of Tim Minchin’s similar conceit for his ‘Three-Minute Song’, except the stakes for compressing a full song into that time-span allow for a virtuoso and breathtaking performance; here, two hours (at already half an hour in) felt positively languid.
The central conceit took a while to emerge clearly, but made some sense. This Macbeth was framed against a diabolic waiting room, decorated with fiendishly mundane water-cooler and pot plants. The omnipresent Porter (Michael Hodgson) sat on one of a row of chairs, watching the action, and tallying the deaths (though the count was by the end divorced from the number of reported deaths, which rather undermined the earlier use of the device). The Porter, slow and drawling, also stood in as Seyton, the Third Murderer and the Old Man, offering continual interruptions; but his role as Satan was understood in the diabolical light that shone on him as he responded to his name in the closing act. The production’s most innovative moment came as the witches’ apparitions exploded onto the stage to the same knock-knocking that had scored the Porter’s earlier soliloquy; the apparitions were ghosts of those already murdered, including Lady Macbeth’s whiskey-swilling attendant, and these ghosts cackled and laughed at the flummoxed Macbeth.
The mundanity of the waiting room, though, led to a bathetic banality at times when a bit of urgency wouldn’t have gone amiss. During Banquo’s murder, the Porter engaged in a silent comedy routine, standing behind Raphael Sowole’s Banquo and miming stabbing to encourage the reticent Murderers to get on with it; the sudden switch to a murder in blackout a jarring tonal misfire. And the Porter sardonically pointed at Macbeth when Macduff entered, part of a completely different play than Bennett and Ecclestone. The undermining humour was just that – undermining.
The waiting room was at least original. The witches were played by children in what is by now a hackneyed trope; worse, the interpretive significance of this in this production was muddy at best. The three pyjama-clad girls appeared sitting in front of Duncan’s sickbed at the opening, speaking in baby voices while manipulating dolls. The children were legitimately creepy, their blank faces captured in close-up in Robin Lough’s direction for the screen, but did little beyond this. The production had some interest in conecting Niamh Cusack’s Lady Macbeth to the idea of absent children – in a particular crass bit of emotion-wrangling, she listened to and wailed at a recording of Lady Macduff and her children being murdered – but I didn’t catch the production trying to link the witches to this aspect of her character.
Eccleston and Cusack were somewhat lost among the competing concepts of waiting rooms, ghosts, ticking clocks and freaky children, which was a shame as both had plenty to offer. Ecclestone in particular was a brusque, business-like Macbeth, terrifying in his explosions of energy as he prepared for war, and withering in his dismissal of niceties. His matter-of-fact delivery of ‘It was a rough night’, and his ‘Thanks for that’ to the cut-throat murderer, both brought heightened moments back down to earth to great comic effect, and his wheeling when confronted with the witches and the visions captured the clash of a simple soldier with the grand machinations of fate and the supernatural. Ecclestone played Macbeth as disarmingly awkward at times, he even momentarily stepping forward to accept the title of Duncan’s heir before realising Malcolm was being honoured instead. But this potentially fascinating Macbeth just didn’t have enough time or space free of the other stuff to let his performance breathe.
Cusack didn’t need breath at all. She started at a high, declamatory pitch and sustained it constantly through the performance. In the earlier scenes this worked in her favour – she had a persuasive energy that swept Macbeth along in the build-up to the murder, and her frustrated arm waving at Macbeth as he refused to pick up the bloodied daggers showed her expending energy fruitlessly. But the production didn’t seem sure what to do with her in the second half, leading to a disastrous sleepwalking scene in which she performed maniacally: thrashing on the floor, beelining at odd angles, and even indulging in some hugely misjudged attempts at humour as she tried to take the hand of an audience member. Cusack disappeared further into the background, literally behind a glass screen at the balcony level, and (particularly oddly, given that all of the live broadcast paratexts were devoted to Lady Macbeth) seemed ultimately entirely peripheral to the production’s interests.
Thankfully, several of the supporting performances were much stronger. Bally Gill was a conscientious and sincere Ross, whose ongoing relationship with the Macduffs positioned him as a caring, sometimes cynical, victim of and commentator on Macbeth’s rule. Mariam Haque and Joshua Vaughan were touching as the doomed Lady and Young Macduff, their scene of sad banter one of the most natural I’ve ever seen (and Young Macduff’s greetings of Ross showed a longstanding familiarity there). Katy Brittain surprisingly stood out as a heartfelt Doctor, and Luke Newberry had some solid moments as an impossibly young and dorkish Malcolm. Unfathomably, however, Findlay chose to aim for cheap pathos at the end by bringing Donna Banya’s Donalbain back to die against Macbeth, and to give Malcolm a body to cradle just before being crowned.
The standout, however, was the always-reliable Bennett as Macduff. Bookish and bespectacled, this Macduff was no fighter, and his ashen-faced call for the house to awake after discovering Duncan’s body was a mere precursor of his devastating receipt of the news of the death of his wife and chidren. Falling over his words, overwhelmed by emotion, he entirely sold the impact, and set up a strong arc in which he finally donned fatigues and marched against Macbeth, taking a beating at the tyrant’s hands and feet before the clock ran out, and Macduff was able to laugh in victory.
With the timer at zero, Malcolm was crowned and a new future hailed in Scotland. Then, as is almost compulsory for productions, Banquo appeared with a sword, implying the cyclical nature of violence and the possibility of renewed tumult. Not content with subtleties, however, the witches then appeared, and the onstage clock rewound to the two-hour mark, and the children again spoke the play’s opening line. Aside from the unnecessary hammering home of the point, this rather unfortunately briefly raised the spectre of having to go through all of this again. The result was a Macbeth with plenty of potential, but which failed to cohere and which was ultimately rather less than the sum of its parts.