Theatre review: Macbeth at the RSC
Royal Shakespeare Company
Written by William Shakespeare
Director: Polly Findlay
Cast: Christopher Eccleston, Niamh Cusack, Edward Bennett, raphael Sowote, Michael Hodgson, Luke Newberry, David Acton, Bally Gill
Opus Arte DVD
Macbeth is a fairly dense play in the first place, so it might take a while to decode what exactly Polly Findlay's take on the work is in her 2018 production for the RSC. There are plenty of touches applied in the modern setting, some of which might distract you from the purpose, including what appears to be a slight shift in emphasis away from Macbeth's pondering on the vagaries of fate, ambition, power, mortality and legacy towards a revised view on Lady Macbeth that sees her as more than an arch manipulator with with evil ambitions. So many possibilities, so little time, and it's that unseen element of the running down of time that is actually the principal focus of Findlay's production.
The regular themes that you expect to see considered in a production of Macbeth are taken into account here, if sometimes in a different manner than which they are usually presented. The weird sisters first of all are three young girls in pajamas rather than hags or witches. This presents something of a spin on the question of Macbeth and his wife's childlessness, the weird sisters here - carrying baby dolls - becoming something of the still-born, unborn or half-born creatures that are really what determines Macbeth's fate. And indeed, perhaps even more, they account for Lady Macbeth's pushing her husband's ambition as their only remaining way of making their mark or presence felt on the world in the absence of descendants.
The role of the Porter is also played upon further in this production. While many productions tend to cut or shorten his scenes, finding the humour distracting from pursuing an exploration of the darker themes of Macbeth, Polly Findlay actually extends the role and it even assumes others such as Seyton, which in this context sounds like 'Satan' and indeed there's a demonic aspect to this production's Porter. He's present at the murder of Banquo, turning off the lights (and perhaps deliberately letting Fleance escape in order to further his own diabolical agenda?), appearing also at the banquet to torment Macbeth further into dark madness, gleefully marking the deaths in chalk on a wall, marks that also can be seen later as marking down time.
That's one idea that seems more of a distraction from the primary purpose of this production than an aid, if indeed you can even figure out any single theme that is being developed here, but Macbeth is certainly a play capable of sustaining more than one idea at a time. Also seemingly unnecessary are the huge block titles that highlight lines of the text, as well as occasionally marking locations, or even such notifications as 'LATER'. While you're struggling to fit everything together into something coherent, Findlay also introduces a large digital clock at the back of the stage that counts down the remaining time of the play from the 02:00:00 hour mark from Duncan's assassination down to zero.
While at first it appears to be another needless distraction with very little purpose, much like the swinging pendulum that Polly Findlay also used in her RSC Merchant of Venice, it's actually the digital clock running down that is the most significant of all the devices that the director uses here. It's only when the clock approaches zero that you realise just how significant this is. Macbeth might not know the exact hour and thinks he can stave it off by murder and slaughter, but he is all too aware that his time in power - his time on earth even - is limited. What it does for the viewer however is draw attention to how pressing the idea of time appears to be to Macbeth the closer we get to the end of his reign and how it relates to the growing desperation and madness that afflicts the king and his wife.
It also draws attention to those aspects of the text that relate to time, and just how many of them there are in Macbeth. "What's done cannot be undone", "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…", "All our yesterdays…" to say nothing of all the direct references to time. There is some consolation to be found in the passing of time wiping the slate clean, that time will even erase cruel tyrants like Macbeth. Even after the clock has run down on Macbeth however, the clock runs up its allotment again and starts ticking down on Malcolm.
What this technique also highlights, which doesn't often get as much attention, is the misgivings that Malcolm has about his taking over the mantle of rule, how it might corrupt and twist his own weaknesses into something terrible. Even his final statements in the play are filled with references to the nature of time, and accordingly, the clock resets itself and the countdown resumes. Findlay choice to reprise the warning of the weird sisters again is a good one - "Something wicked this way comes", "When shall we three meet again". Macbeth does not finish with the death of Macbeth, and history will undoubtedly encounter many of his kind again.
There's not even a suggestion of Scottishness about this production (national identity surely one of the least important aspects of Macbeth) or indeed any effort to make any authentic accents. I like Christopher Eccleston's energy and intensity as an actor, but I didn't find him well suited to Macbeth. It never felt that he has assumed the role or made the text live, and unfortunately there have been quite a few recent Macbeths still fresh in the mind that made this even more difficult a role to live up to. Niamh Cusack fates better as Lady Macbeth, giving a stronger and more sympathetic purpose to the character in the predominately female lean of the production.
What I like about how Polly Findlay directs however is that the play doesn't rest on a couple of powerful dramatic central performances, but rather she uses the distinct balance of moods that each character creates in the varied tones of the work. The first half I felt too rushed and distracting with all that was going on, as if time was of the essence, so perhaps this was intentional. The second half fared much better, finding rhythm, balance and purpose. Edward Bennett's Macduff makes a strong impression as does Luke Newberry's Malcolm, and Bally Gill raised the profile of Ross, who I've barely registered before, the three presenting a strong counter-purpose to the malevolent/deranged entity that Macbeth becomes. For the moment at least until their 'Time' comes.
Like only Twelfth Night previously, this RSC release is on DVD only, with no Blu-ray edition. Transferred as NTSC, the image quality suffers and doesn't cope well with the predominately dark stage, lacking detail and tone, faces in particular looking quite washed out. There are no technical issues as such other than the low resolution offered by NTSC. There are no problems with the Dolby Digital 2.0 or 5.1 audio tracks however, the dialogue clear, the sound effects thunderous. English only subtitles are included. Extras on the DVD consist of Interviews with Niamh Cusack and Emma Smith giving a female perspective on the play. If I had read it before watching the play, Emma Smith's essay in the booklet on the theme of Time in Macbeth I might have picked up on the central concept of the production a little earlier, which is helpful in the absence here of a director's commentary that you usually find on Opus Arte RSC releases.