Review: Macbeth at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre

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Disappointing

This update of Shakespeare's play about ambition and power fails to live up to its potential.

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Director Polly Findlay’s take on the Shakespearian tragedy offers interesting motifs and use of visual and sound effects but misses the mark on the most important scenes and is not as refined as one would expect from the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The RSC website calls Macbeth a ‘psychological thriller’ and it’s clear that this is what Findlay is trying to convey in her modern production. She borrows cliches from the horror genre by casting little girls as the witches and having them sing their lines off-key; sudden black-outs create illusions of apparitions and at one point the light falls on a little girl sat on a creaky swing. Whilst this is all very effective in building drama it’s not highly original and the heart of the play itself seems to get lost. The drama that’s already built into Shakespeare’s words struggles to shine through all of the stage production.

This was my biggest problem with the play: the soliloquies that I and I’m sure most other theatre goers went to see Macbeth for were just…disappointing. In particular, Lady Macbeth did not convey the power and darkness which usually defines her. Instead of composed and calculated this version of Lady Macbeth runs around the stage frantically and shrinks into the background soon after the first act has even begun. The scene in which she summons the dark spirits to ‘unsex’ her and fill her with ‘direst cruelty’ felt almost inconsequential when it should have been one of the key moments of the play. The tortured state of her soul was not effectively conveyed in her final soliloquy either; Lady Macbeth seemed more like a batty old woman as she wondered around the stage in a crown and pink pyjamas yelling her lines. Overall, the performance needed more subtlety. This is not to say that Niamh Cusack’s acting was poor. Rather, the issue appears to be more with the way in which she was directed.

Although it seems that many of the issues with this take on Macbeth are a result of more attention being paid to stage effects than performance style there are two parts of the set design which succeed in adding substance rather than just flash to the play. The first of these is the use of a large screen which displays the key phrase for each section of the play. Here Findlay proves she understands that Shakespeare’s words alone have dramatic power. The phrase changing is a nice indication of a change in tone and the moments when this happens are well chosen to add impact. The second successful piece of set design is the use of a countdown. After Macbeth’s first major sin the clock is set at two hours and counts down until his demise. This is one of the psychological thriller tropes that really works for Macbeth: it adds a sense of urgency and highlights the inevitability of his damnation. Unfortunately it all leads up to a pretty disappointing fight sequence between Macbeth and Macduff. I don’t really know what I can say about the fight choreography apart from that I couldn’t take it seriously…it was almost farcical. Nevertheless, when the clock resets itself after Fleance picks up the sword the message that destruction can only lead to destruction is hammered home: this is the most effective moment of the play.

Michael Hodgson as the Porter was by far the standout performance. His presence on stage creates a sense of foreboding but he is also refreshingly funny. The audience was the most obviously receptive to this character and the dark comedy adds an interesting layer to the production. Ultimately, this version of Macbeth has some interesting new takes on the story but just isn’t up to the standard expected from an RSC production.

Macbeth will be playing at the Royal Shakespeare theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon until the 18th September 2018 before moving to the Barbican Theatre in London where it will play from the 15th October 2018 to the 18th January 2019. It will also be broadcast live to cinemas on the 11th April 2018.

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