Polly Findlay’s modern costume staging of Macbeth, which transferred from the RSC to London’s Barbican, is this year’s definitive production of Shakespeare’s most performed tragedy. It is a kind of production that ticks all the boxes for the first-time theatregoers but it is also creative enough for more seasoned lovers of Shakespeare.
Its strength, without any doubt, is its casting. Cusack and Eccleston, as Lady Macbeth and Macbeth respectively, are a very watchable onstage Shakespearean couple. He is a bullish commander who overreaches himself by aspiring to being a king. She is an ambitious woman sparkling with intelligence, charm and wit, who thinks she can be ruthless, but in fact is too sensitive to face the consequences of Macbeth’s bloody deeds she instigates and supports.
Cusack’s body language and stage movement are fantastic – she is spirited and emotional. Her Lady Macbeth clearly exerts great influence over her husband, also because of her courage to speak her mind. Eccleston is a people’s Macbeth, he really wants to connect with the audience through his soliloquies and delivers them often sitting on the edge of the stage, talking directly to spectators in the nearest rows of seats. What is more, both actors use their regional accents from Ireland and Northern England at the expense of the RSC’s sonorous RP twang. It makes their characters more real, relatable.
All cast, however, are able to leave a mark on this production. Particularly interesting (even if not entirely successful) is Edward Bennett’s characterisation of Macduff as a cowardly and inept politician who in the end wins only because Macbeth lets him due to his unshaken belief in the witches’ prophecy.
Findlay also decided to change slightly the reading of the play by giving much more agency to the Porter. He becomes a sort of puppet master, perhaps an agent of hell, who directs the villains towards their bad deeds, even aids them. He is present on the stage all the time and gets many lines normally spoken by other characters.
There is really much to enjoy in this production perhaps with the exception of the three witches – three little girls dressed in resplendent red. This dramaturgical device is an old hat really as we have seen several productions in the UK, Europe and more internationally over the years.
The stage design and soundscape, on the other hand, are very effective and not only help create an atmosphere of horror but also let the action take place in several places at the same time. I particularly liked the way the glass gallery was used as the war room by Macbeth’s opposition.
Overall, if I was forced to give this production a grade it would be a solid B+. Findlay offers an often inspiring interpretation of Shakespeare’s well-known play. The ensemble cast offers thoughtful and intelligent performances of Shakespeare’s characters. What more do you really need to spend a great evening at the theatre?