‘A drum! A drum! Macbeth doth come.’

Christopher Eccleston and Niamh Cusack star in Polly Findlay’s compelling production of Macbeth at the RSC, which is powerful but somewhat hit-and-miss.

Returning home from battle, the victorious Macbeth is portrayed by Eccleston as every inch the rugged, bloodied soldier. Forever trapped in his Doctor Who persona, Eccleston successfully separates himself from this and, from the performance’s outset, gives Macbeth the gruff northerner treatment, which works well.  Eccleston is successful in his fine study of a man struggling as both soldier, husband and ruler. Bloody murders of innocents couldn’t have felt more relevant with the recent alleged chemical weapons attack carried out by the Syrian government, and as an audience member, the disturbing events unfolding on stage felt frighteningly real.

Unfortunately, however, theatrical overkill puts a damper on the play. Lady Macbeth’s declaration, ‘The future in the instant” leads to a digital clock being used to countdown until the play’s end. It’s hard to always justify its purpose; at times it provides a distraction with its resemblance to the Bake Off, and at other points it makes the audience look forward to the approaching ice cream available at the interval. Even the deployment of a water machine on stage is somewhat disappointing; I was thrilled at the RSC’s hospitality when I saw free water was available for audiences throughout the long performance, only to realise the monstrosity of a machine is actually a prop for the actors.

Despite this, some other theatrical decisions are incredibly well executed. The Porter, in particular, is fantastic. Not since Thomas De Quincey wrote a famous essay, “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth” (1823), has the character’s significance been understood. Played by Michael Hodgson, who remains on stage throughout, the Porter takes on multiple roles: at times a vacuum cleaner, a sinister third murderer, and a witness who keeps track of Macbeth’s atrocities. Findlay masters subtlety in her direction of the Porter, whose perspective on events is fully engaging.

Eccleston’s Macbeth is at times, surprisingly, understated in his role. Interior monologues spoken to the audience with an alarming calmness worked well. Even the infamous ‘Tomorrow, tomorrow and tomorrow’ soliloquy was displayed as general thoughts being processed, giving a refreshing new feel to the lines which usually come thick-and-fast with theatrical exaggeration. Niamh Cusack also gives a refreshing new feel to Lady Macbeth in her return to the RSC, despite her excessively glamorous dresses which show off her incredibly toned body rather than aid depth of character. Her hysterical “Out, damned spot!” scene fully engages the audience as she takes an audience member’s hand in her guilt, making the scene incredibly heart-wrenching to watch.

Sadly, the witches had a very small role. Played by three child actors, dressed in bright pink pyjamas and slippers, and looking more like part of The Sleepover Club than symbols of James I paranoia with witchcraft, their over-stated ‘babyish’ portrayal is more suited to The Shining than Macbeth. Although, Findlay’s use of baby dolls does pose interesting questions to audiences regarding Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s childless state, even perhaps suggesting a lost baby or past miscarriage.

There are many other positive aspects of this production. Edward Bennett movingly displays Macduff’s grief, Luke Newberry successfully portrays Malcolm as shadowed in danger, and Raphael Sowole is a staunchly watchful Banquo. This RSC version strikes me as incomplete, with its innovative ideas, some of which are admirable, but that are not developed enough to justify their use.

Feature Image: https://www.rsc.org.uk/macbeth/the-plot