When I saw that the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new production of Macbeth was scheduled to run for over three hours, my heart sank. This is Shakespeare’s second shortest play after Comedy of Errors; so how on earth are they going to make it last three hours? I’m sure when I saw Judi Dench and Ian McKellen at the Young Vic in 1978 they did it in little over two hours. Mind you, that was the production where Dame Judi rattled through Lady Macbeth’s letter scene so rapidly that they dubbed it the telegram scene.
My heart sank further when I discovered that the porter scene was to be rewritten by Stewart Lee “because it’s not funny anymore and no one gets the jokes”. I don’t consider myself that much of a Shakespeare purist but there are limits. I was reminded of Julie Walters in the Victoria Wood sketch where the Piecrust Players are staging Hamlet. She pulls Ophelia up on her words: “That lovely line, there’s Rosemary, that’s for remembrance – it’s no good bunging a few herbs about saying don’t mind me I’m a loony. This is our marvellous bard – you cannot paraphrase.” The porter’s scene does indeed pose problems and frequently doesn’t work – but occasionally it does, if you do it really, really well. And that’s one of the challenges of staging this play.
However, having seen the show I happily confess both my reasons for heart-sinking were unfounded. Yes, this is quite a slow Macbeth, but not in a dull, laborious way. It takes the opportunity to dwell upon the silent moments in the play; the actions of the witches, the atmospheric eerie portents of the castle and the ghostly visions, not to mention the drawn-out personal battle to the death between Macbeth and Macduff. The densely packed speeches are delivered thoughtfully and respectfully, at a measured pace, allowing us all to appreciate the language and its meaning. It’s so easy to get lost in a Shakespeare production when the actors race through the words so quickly that you don’t know what’s going on. But that doesn’t happen here; the production’s careful tempo keeps the audience sticking with it all the way through.
And as for the rewritten porter’s scene; if you’re going to do something differently you might as well go the whole hog. I thought I was either going to hate it or love it; in fact, I did neither. The porter is now re-imagined as a stand-up comedian, with the obligatory microphone stand and compere introduction, addressing today’s audience with a 100% wall-breaking routine that comments on the news, politicians, and on the students watching the play for GCSE research. In a striking moment of disrespecting the audience, she mischievously gives the game away by telling us that Macbeth dies in the end. When she starts to engage Macduff and Lennox in conversation (as in Shakespeare’s original) it’s their turn to go off-piste and complain about things like woke productions and having a black actor play Othello – whatever next?
For the most part, the new sequence is pretty funny, and the audience hooted all the way through it. Apparently, there are explicit performances and non-explicit performances, depending on the date, which relate to the content of the porter’s script. We saw a non-explicit performance; but, to be honest, I don’t see the point of pussyfooting here. If you’re going to make a big splash with an innovative and offensive scene, don’t hold back. Personally, I thought it could have gone even more outrageous. However, the rewritten scene does weaken the motif of knocking in the play. It’s a relentless buzzer that disturbs the porter rather than the usual knock knock knocking, and it recurs on a few other occasions, which removes that sense of fate knocking at Macbeth’s door, or knocking at his conscience. I’m not sure a buzzing quite does the same trick.
Wils Wilson’s production truly excels in conveying a classic, eerie, dark atmosphere. Dead birds fall from the sky, discordant clangs reverberate from the on-stage musicians, rain pours down. The witches first appear as almost half-formed pupae oozing out of a hole on the stage. There’s also an artificiality that also lends a discomforting air. It’s an almost entirely bloodless production; Banquo’s ghost is a vision of pallor, Lady Macduff’s babies are puppets that get tossed between murderers until you hear an audible crack of their necks and they’re dispatched into binbags. The unwashable blood on Lady Macbeth’s hands is suggested by a red light up her sleeve. Dead bodies are calmly coaxed up and walk off the stage at the invitation of the witches. On the whole, the production doesn’t do histrionics; Macbeth’s speeches are frequently fragile, Lady M’s criticisms of her husband’s perceived weakness are quietly underplayed, and Macduff’s shock at the loss of his pretty chickens renders him almost speechless.
As you might expect, there is some trademark Royal Shakespeare Company gender-shifting amongst some of the roles, usually an opportunity to question your traditional understanding of those characters. Having the porter as a woman and one of the witches as a man works nicely. However, in other areas the concept doesn’t fully flow quite so easily for a couple of reasons. Duncan is now Queen of Scotland – even though Duncan is clearly a male name, she is definitely a woman. Banquo is also a woman, as is the unseen Thane of Cawdor, until she is executed. However, Malcolm is still a male character, even though he is played by a woman, so there’s a lack of consistency there. Perhaps even more of a problem, this production sites women in positions of power with Duncan at the top and Banquo and Cawdor as solid supporting officers; so there’s absolutely no need for Lady Macbeth to bend over backwards to encourage her husband to take the Scottish throne – she could just as easily do it herself.
Reuben Joseph is a rather reserved and controlled Macbeth, prone to flashes of petulance revealing a deep-down fragility and a tendency towards mental disorder that becomes more quickly apparent than in most productions. It’s an intelligent and calm reading of the part. For our performance, Lady Macbeth was played by Eilidh Loan, with another restrained and unhysterical characterisation, quietly dominating her husband, but primarily allowing the text to do the hard work – all whilst still retaining her usual role as a witch too, which is some feat! Anna Russell-Martin’s Banquo is a hearty soul, and Therese Bradley plays Duncan with a sunny and beneficent disposition. Amber Sylvia Edwards and Dylan Read are the other two intriguing and spooky witches, and there’s a terrific supporting performance from George Anton as Macduff – noble, respected, and thoroughly persistent. And Alison Peebles makes the role of the porter very much her own, full of cantankerous glaring and sarcasm. At our show there were a number of roles performed by understudies, and the quality of some of the performances was perhaps a little patchy as a result – but you can’t fault that level of commitment.
But it’s not the performances that linger in the mind with this production, it’s with the ominous sense of fear and eeriness where it truly succeeds. It’s a cunning blend of the traditional and the innovative, and although it may lack a little in drive and authenticity, it conjures a very powerful atmosphere.
Production photos by Marc Brenner.