by Rachel Beaumont

latest archive about contact

Mussed not annihilated: Macbeth by the RSC

Barbican Theatre
Gallery A55, £10
23 October 2018
Barbican page

Dread swelled in my breast as the Barbican’s curtain-fortress rose to reveal three little eight-year-old witches garbed in little red dresses speaking in creepy unison. The dread was apt in that the evening was ridden with all kinds of such Kubrick-lite gimmicks, from starkly flashing title cards to a soundtrack that could have passed for horror parody and everything in between. But, as with the NT’s Macbeth this March, underneath all the shenanigans there was at the core a very robust, intelligent, interesting, worthwhile and entertaining Macbeth, mussed by silliness rather than annihilated by it.

In this mixture of good and bad directorial decisions there were a few that spanned the divide: thought-through and interesting but dramatically deadening, these had a worse effect than those largely ignorable smatterings of shrieking violins and strobing lights. One of these was to start a two-hour countdown from Duncan’s death to Macbeth’s, visible throughout and even continuing through the interval. A sound idea – picks up the play’s famous shortness, alludes to time, entropy, fate, hope, hopelessness, all sensible things. But much as it might make sense on paper the primary effect is to pull you out of the story: I found myself marvelling coolly at how little time it took to murder the Macduff family; Macbeth dies and my first thought was to admire his promptness.

This and a few other things – such as an interpretation of the final battle where for roughly three and a half minutes two actors roll about on the floor pretending to fight each other – meant that though I was happy to while away the time with this Macbeth I was almost never moved. And that’s a shame because the cast, presumably helped by director Polly Findlay, does some very sensible things.

My primary reason for booking was my enthusiasm for Christopher Eccleston’s voice and face, and in this I was mostly satisfied. He was, sad to say, actually a touch too quiet at points, but then maybe they didn’t rehearse with anyone up in the gallery. I wonder also if the peculiar sense of safety I feel whenever I hear Eccleston speak added to the dampness of the finale, but that’s not something I can blame on anyone else. Otherwise his Macbeth ticked a lot of boxes: at the beginning exultant, cheerful, triumphant, in love, uncomfortable at court, ungainly; at the end in a nihilism beyond despair, degraded utterly; the transformation from one to the other tracked precisely.

He and Niamh Cusack as Lady Macbeth make superb sense together, and aside from showcasing such actors I think it’s a great idea to have the lead couple slightly older than usual, lending their ambition more entitlement, their persecution of Banquo more hopelessness. Cusack is the driver of this atmosphere: her preening glamour, her ruthlessness and her madness all stem from an exuberance innate to her character, a desperate, vibrant joy of living. It’s an inspired approach and a welcome change from the usual embittered young woman.

Of the rest of the strong cast (including, as seems to be par for the course nowadays, loads of impressive child actors) I would single out Edward Bennett as Macduff, on the face of it typecast as a genial family guy but who handles his central scene with bold and horrifying silence in the production’s only truly affecting moment.

No comments yet.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

<< Flies in the ointment: Die Walküre at the ROH

A difference of opinion: Medusa at Sadler’s Wells >>