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Macbeth - RSC Review

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by Alison Brinkworth (subscribe)
Freelance journalist in Birmingham with a passion for the dynamic theatre, art, food and fashion scene in Britain's 'Second City'.
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Dr Who Star Christopher Eccleston Plays Macbeth
Christopher Eccleston is well versed in murder, the supernatural and doing away with enemies through his extensive career in movies and Dr Who, so making his Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) debut as Macbeth should come naturally.

Macbeth, RSC, Christopher Eccleston, Niamh Cusack, Polly Findlay, 2018
Christopher Eccleston is a powerful presence on stage


Lady to his Macbeth is Niamh Cusack in this new RSC version directed by Polly Findlay, who was behind the RSC's recent so-so version of Merchant of Venice and better received Arden of Faversham. I caught the production at The Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford upon Avon where it stays until September 18 before moving on to London's Barbican Theatre from October 15 to January 18 next year.

It's a highly stylised version of the Scottish play and there's a strong theme of time along with an affiliation to horror movies.

I've seen the three witches played in a variety of ways from old hags to seductresses, but this production's take was much more chilling with three identical girls in onesies holding scary bare dolls. It's very much the same vein as the eerie children in movie The Shining.

They appear like flashes around the stage with sudden jolts of the head and hands, torchlights and a slashing hard soundtrack to boot.

Findlay's horror theme doesn't end there as the Porter has a sinister janitor edge to him rather than being a drunken comic. His most prominent act is to slowly mark the number of deaths on a brick wall in chalk. This goes into overdrive towards the end of the play when the walls are filled with the stark number of killings (shown below).

Macbeth, RSC, Christopher Eccleston, Niamh Cusack, Polly Findlay, 2018
Chilling marks behind the porter fill the wall as deaths rise.


Confusingly, despite the horror theme, the dinner party scene with the ghost of Banquo isn't particularly scary, yet this is when Findlay could have really gone to town with this theme.

Although there is a supernatural element to Macbeth, touting it along the horror lines is an alternative approach, but not what necessarily gets to the crunch of this story. It's more a psychological thriller and a very human drama about the power of suggestion and where raw ambition can take us and the guilt for those actions. This production in many ways glossed over many of those elements.

It's a strange modern set to some degree. While a balcony is used well, Macbeth's home is more like a 1970's council building with an inexplicable water cooler and a Mastermind style black chair.

My main bug bear was the use of a big screen to display relevant quotes throughout the performance along with the word "later" flashing up repeatedly between scenes. It was as though Findlay assumed the audience wouldn't pick up on what they needed to know without her unsubtle pointers in massive letters across the stage.

The only good part of this digital display was an electronic clock that sprung to life and counted down two hours from the moment King Duncan was murdered.

It was a symbolic gesture showing that Macbeth's time was up as soon as he had committed the villainous deed (while also doubling as a handy tool to know when exactly the play would finish).

This clock and the essence of time being against the Macbeths was a nice touch and there was also a clever twist on this in the final moment.

Macbeth, RSC, Christopher Eccleston, Niamh Cusack, Polly Findlay, 2018, photo Richard Davenport
Christopher Eccleston makes a strong RSC debut


The best thing by far about this new production is Eccleston, making his RSC debut. He is constantly a powerful presence on stage. Believable as a fierce warrior in battle yet also someone who curls up, rocking in the foetal position while being ranted at by his scheming ambitious wife to man-up.

Eccleston and Cusack make a strong team on stage and their scenes together have an electricity about them. Their roles gradually transform as Cusack's Lady Macbeth moves from the controlled and fearless dominant partner in the relationship to the tormented, agitated woman running around the theatre in her pyjamas accosting audience members in the sleepwalking scene.

Macbeth, RSC, Christopher Eccleston, Niamh Cusack, Polly Findlay, 2018, photo Richard Davenport
Niamh Cusack as Lady Macbeth in the RSC production.


Macbeth meanwhile has changed from an emotional wreck at the thought of killing the king to someone who shrugs his shoulders in resignation when he finds out his wife has died.

Actor Edward Bennett also stands out as Macduff, who many will remember for his winning comic turn as Berowne in the RSC's Love's Labour's Lost in 2014.

Bennett gives a superbly emotional performance, particularly when he hears of his family's fate. Interestingly, Macduff has been given a middle-aged makeover so he appears like an accountant with a paunch, which makes the all-action swordfight between him and Macbeth in the finale somewhat unbelievable and the way that he wins over Macbeth is even more unrealistic.

Macbeth, RSC, Christopher Eccleston, Niamh Cusack, Polly Findlay, 2018, photo Richard Davenport
Edward Bennett is memorable as Macduff


While there's some fine individual performances in this new version of Macbeth and some memorable imagery surrounding the portrayal of the witches, it feels too much of a mixed bag.

It tries to overhaul Macbeth as a modern horror story but then overlooks some of the key themes in the plot. Sadly, it ends up feeling more style over substance.

What it does provide, however, is a welcome debut from one of Britain's finest actors of his generation and hopefully there will be much more to come from Christopher Eccleston at the RSC.

RATING:


ROYAL SHAKESPEARE THEATRE
STRATFORD-UPON-AVON
UNTIL 18 SEPTEMBER 2018

BARBICAN THEATRE
LONDON
15 OCTOBER 2018 - 18 JANUARY 2019
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Why? See Dr Who actor Christopher Eccleston playing Macbeth
When: Until January 2019
Phone: 01789 403493
Where: Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, and then Barbican Theatre in London
Cost: From £5
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