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Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Instead of being about the corruption of power, or about the unconscious power of guilt, this new production of Macbeth by Polly Findlay at the RSC in Stratford is about the disruption of Time caused by an irretrievable act of evil. Admittedly, there are several references to Time in the play’s text; it is a running theme. But it is not the core of the play, and by focusing on it so blatantly (we watch a digital clock running down to zero throughout most of the production) this production has somehow detached us from the greater depths of the characterizations. It also distracts one from what is going on. Only 7 minutes to go, really? How are they going to fit in the forest of Dunsinane and the final battle between Macbeth and Macduff in seven – oops, now six and a half – minutes?

Ultimately, this production of the play falls flat. This is a terrible shame. On paper, the cast and creatives are very promising choices – and on the stage, the actors and the set are strong enough to command attention. The play starts well, with the three witches played by three children and the aged king, Duncan, awoken from his sleep by messengers coming to tell of Macbeth and Banquo’s victories. But then a bluff, straightforward Macbeth turns up and reads out his lines very foursquare and flatly.

Macbeth Royal Shakespeare Company__2018_ photo_by_richard_davenport__c__rsc

Throughout the evening one keeps waiting for more – more nuance, more anguish, more of a descent into hell, from all the company. Christopher Eccleston starts at the same level that he maintains throughout; and with no peaks, valleys or significant pauses, he comes across as a bit of an unthinking thug. Niamh Cusack as Lady Macbeth somehow does not convey her passionate ambition or her passion for her husband. She is believable but limited. She conveys the greed, and she does the madness really well in the Sleepwalking Scene – though if you really want to experience the madness and pain of Lady Macbeth one of the best interpretations is actually Maria Callas in the operatic version. Seek out the CDs?

Edward Bennett was compelling as Macduff when he learns that his wife and children have been murdered by the tyrant, and Luke Newberry had a real presence as Malcolm. The production does have some clever, even memorable, ideas: the three witches played by children, for example, to relate to. The Porter is made not only into a devil porter and a dark-side clown but a kind of chorus for the rest of us. He observes the action with real cynicism and is very present after the murders Michael Hodgson acquits this interpretation of the ever-present Porter well; and Raphael Sowole is an appealing, morally centred Banquo.

Good in parts, then? Yes. Worth seeing? Yes again, because though I think the basic premise of the production is misconceived and inhibits deeper mining of the text, I do not think it is stupid. It is kind of like a straight jacket that is too strong, even blinkered, to do full justice to this complex and troubling story or the conflicted, ambitious and energetic central couple. However, everyone is clearly working well together within this constraining framework of this concept and you still come away thinking about the play itself, which is actually what one ultimately wants.

So not the most memorable, revealing, thought-provoking or emotionally moving Macbeth but certainly nothing to be ashamed of either.

  • Drama
  • By William Shakespeare
  • Director: Polly Findlay
  • Cast includes: Christopher Eccleston, Niamh Cusack, Raphael Sowole, David Acton, Edward Bennett, Luke Newberry, Michael Hodgson, Mariam Haque
  • Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
  • until 18 September 2018 then at the Barbican Theatre, London, from 15 October 2018 to 18 January 2019
  • In Cinemas, live broadcast, 11 April 2018

About The Author

Reviewer (UK)

Canadian-born Mel Cooper first came to the UK to study English Literature at Oxford University and stayed. He was captivated by the culture and history of Britain, which he found to be a welcoming and tolerant country. After working in highly illustrated, non-fiction publishing for over a decade, he founded and edited the magazine Opera Now. Since then he has worked as a consultant to the Japanese broadcaster NHK, a broadcaster on British Satellite Broadcasting, a maker of audio shows and arts critic for several airlines, and as one of the team that started Britain’s first commercial classical music radio station, Classic FM, on which he was both a classical music DJ and creator and presenter of shows like Classic America and Authentic Performance. Throughout this period, he also lectured in music and literature in London and Oxford and published short stories in Canada. After working with the Genesis Foundation on helping to fund arts projects, he continues to write, review and lecture on music and literature. His first novel has just been published as an e-book. The title is City of Dreams. It is the first volume of a projected saga called The Dream Bearers. You can find the Kindle version of the book on Amazon.

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