I remember having to write an essay on Shakespeare’s As You Like It at university. I enjoyed the play, and considered it from many angles, and then I thought I’d identified something no one else had seen before. Taking much of my idea from Touchstone’s lengthy scene with Jaques describing the degrees of a lie, and particularly his conclusion: “Your If is your only peacemaker: much virtue in If”, I constructed an (if I may say so) elegant, well-reasoned and convincing argument that the whole play is about the art of compromise. I read it enthusiastically to my tutor and eagerly awaited his response. He merely looked over his intimidating spectacles and murmured the two words: “possible interpretation”, at which point I instantly realised I’d run amok with my mad idea and had completely missed the point. For “possible interpretation” read “wrong”.
As Don says in Christopher Hampton’s The Philanthropist, “it’s much more important for a theory to be shapely than for it to be true.” So, to Polly Findlay’s new production of Macbeth for the RSC. If I’d taken time to read the programme before it started (yes, my bad, I know), I would have realised that the whole production centres on Macbeth’s relationship with time. And there’s little doubt in my mind that time is indeed one of the themes of the play. “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”; “the seeds of time”; “untimely ripp’d” and so on; they’re all there. However, I’ve always felt that the ultimate theme in Macbeth is “vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself”. Then you have those important themes of power; cruelty; tyranny versus nobility; not to mention the supernatural element. Macbeth’s also one of the finest examples of dramatic irony, which applies to all true tragedies, where the hero doesn’t know his character failings nor his outcome but the audience does. And then, of course, there’s the hope for the future. Scotland’s afraid to know itself until the noble Malcolm becomes King. So many options for so much dramatic indulgence.
Now, I love challenging theatre. And I’m all for messing about with Shakespeare (to an extent) – he’s big and strong enough to take care of himself, after all. But if you choose to approach a play from a bold, original and unpredictable angle, there has to be a purpose to it. It should open up the audience’s understanding of the play. It must illuminate where before there was darkness. It has to make you understand things you never fathomed before. But this production does the complete opposite. By linking the play inexorably to theme of time, it imprisons it rather than releases it. Despite knowing the play fairly well, I found the narrative surprisingly confusing and difficult to follow, which doesn’t make for a rewarding night at the theatre. In an attempt to cast new light on one of the most magnificent plays in the English language, the creative team have subjugated it under this all-embracing yoke of time, to the near-eradication of all its other subtleties and glories.
For example: out go the three witches, to be replaced by three cute little girls in pink jimjams each cuddling a dolly. Congratulations to whichever three child actors were playing the parts last Saturday evening because they carried it off superbly. But ghoulish hags they aren’t, which renders many of Banquo’s and Macbeth’s comments about them meaningless. My guess is that they were meant to be eerie, like the children in Poltergeist or The Omen, or some such horror movie. Way off the mark, I’m afraid.
Out, too, goes the comedy drunken porter, and in comes a lugubrious presence who sits at the side of the stage for the whole performance and crosses off random chalk tallies on the wall; if there was a symbolic reason for this, I’d love someone to explain it. He has his uses; when Lady Macbeth didn’t properly turn off the tap on the watercooler, he was there with a deft knob turn. More significantly, and elevated to a level of importance way beyond Shakespeare’s original, he sets off an LED clock on the back wall of the stage, ticking down the minutes and seconds from 2 hours to zero, which will be the point at which Macbeth dies. He becomes the Zeitmeister. Sadly, the ticking clock was much more mesmeric than the nonsensical things that were happening on stage; I almost skipped the interval as I couldn’t take my eyes off it. “Here’s a knocking indeed” says the Porter. And he’s right. I’ve never heard such loud knocking – way too loud to be realistic, so I presume they’re going for a symbolic effect. But for me it’s the perfect example of how this production sacrifices subtlety for an attempt at a wow factor.
Fly Davis’ setting incorporates a second small stage high above the first and hidden behind a screen, which can only be seen when it’s lit from within. This provides a useful additional acting space and works very well. What works less well is the constant projection of random phrases from the text at the top of the stage – I’m never a fan of these Brechtian distancing devices, and, believe me, they are very random. To tie in with the ever-present time theme, the word later often appears over the hidden stage. No kidding. Sometimes it says now but mainly it says later. The observant theatregoer already knew they weren’t seeing a production of Pinter’s Betrayal so they guessed it was taking place in chronological order. Everything’s always later, dang my breeches. You only have to look at the ticking clock staring you in the face – of course it’s later, what else could it be? However, the clock is ticking down in real time, but the play doesn’t proceed in real time; so there are now two timescales, and, presumably, two different types of later. Does that help? No. It’s confusing rather than illuminating. And talking of playing with time, the last fifteen seconds of the production completely rewrite both the original and the nature of all Shakespearean tragedy, with the implication that the whole thing is going to start again with another 2 hour countdown. NO! It isn’t! They’re making up their own story, gentle reader. This shouldn’t be called Macbeth, it should be renamed Macbeth’s Time Machine, based on an idea by Shakespeare.
When you pretty much hate everything the production is trying to do, it’s very difficult to see through that and pick out the good aspects. But I’ll try. The set is functional and clear. There’s one exceptionally good performance – more of which shortly. The technical tricks with the clock were accurate and memorable. The lighting is stark but effective. The costumes were of course excellent – well some of them were a little unusual but when have you ever seen the RSC perform with poor quality or inappropriate costumes?
With a starry cast headed by Christopher Eccleston and Niamh Cusack I had high expectations for a dynamic duo on stage. But I sensed there was very little magic between them. Theirs felt more like a business arrangement than a marriage. To appreciate the pressure on Macbeth and the influence of Lady Macbeth, you have to believe that if he doesn’t screw his courage to the sticking place he’ll have one helluva domestic price to pay. But in this production, that sense of threat is missing. This Macbeth could easily have gone talk to the hand and said whatever as she was nagging on. Mr Eccleston spends the evening being bluff and dour, with not a lot of light and shade to his delivery. Ms Cusack sometimes looks like she’s on a sugar hyper, so jumpy and over-animated is her behaviour. Only in the dining scene, where Macbeth is tormented by the ghost of Banquo, did Ms Cusack seem at ease with the role, with her embarrassed, hurried excuses to their guests. Bizarrely, throughout the whole play, I also found that many of their speech inflections seemed, well, just wrong; stressing the wrong word in a sentence, or the wrong syllable in a word. Much of it was very alien and uncomfortable to the ear.
Most of the other roles lacked a sense of individuality, but to be fair they weren’t helped by the over-stylistic presentation. David Acton’s Duncan stood out as a thoughtful, credible portrayal of a noble king, so it was annoying that Macbeth killed him so early. Michael Hodgson’s Porter became something of an audience favourite with his deliberately stilted, mocking, laconic characterisation. It’s not often that I find the Porter’s crude speech funny; and sadly, this was no exception. I did, however, have to resist the temptation to let out at derisory laugh when he got his carpet sweeper out. OK, in the castle, I expect the Porter would have to do a bit of cleaning now and then. But on the battlefield? I’ve never heard of the detritus of war being cleared up with a Ewbank, particularly as slowly as he was doing it. Either I’m too stupid to get it, or it was too stupid to care about. Your choice.
Thank heavens for Edward Bennett as Macduff, who exuded the perfect degree of upright respectability, spoke with utmost clarity, and, in the words of Ronan Keating, said it best when he said nothing at all when told of the murders of the rest of his family. That stunned silence, that emptiness behind the eyes, that controlled need for repeated confirmation of what had happened, all conveyed more emotion, sorrow and quiet fury than the rest of the show put together. Kudos to him and Mr Eccleston for timing their fight so that the lethal blow was struck at the just the right moment – it would have been agony to be a second out. Although Mr Eccleston was hanging around just waiting to be sliced for a little longer than was believable; I guess that’s the price you pay when you sacrifice the truth for the effect.
It wasn’t long into the show before Mrs Chrisparkle fell asleep. She wasn’t tired; she was a combination of bored, confused and irritated. I knew better than to wake her up. The temptation to leave at the interval was strong; but I have to say, everyone came back for the second half which really surprised me; and it received a very warm reception from the audience at curtain call, so I’m fully prepared to accept I’m out of kilter on this one. But I think this is one of the most misguided productions I’ve ever seen, choked by gimmickry. As Macbeth himself says, Confusion hath made its Masterpiece. He’s right there.
Production photos by Richard Davenport