Macbeth at the RSC: Review

26 Apr

Macbeth played by Jonathon Slinger, who was well reviewed as Richard III in the last histories season at the RSC.

A brand new theatre with which to play and certainly the RSC have used every aspect possible in their production. But Macbeth spoke true when he described ‘merely players’; the production failed to impress. The ideas worked, as ideas, but the execution was poor – perhaps in time the polishing of nightly performances will prevail and create an inspiring show. But not yet, and not for a while. (For me to review accurately the following must contain many spoilers.)

The audience’s expectation of three witches attending in a puff of smoke was brilliantly revoked by three children hanging like rag dolls from ropes with innocent reverberated voices. The woe of child actors will always be, however, that even if they perfect their lines (which they didn’t) and remember all their direction, their characterisation does not feel intuitive or consistent; they rarely maintain a character throughout. (We had a cheekily grinning ghost and a spectacularly unhorrific slaughter of Child Macduff.) Type casting, which the casting of children must usually be, can work in Hollywood, but not in Shakespeare. The scene when they first meet Macbeth and Banquo works only if the witches appear intangible, instead the children seemed vulnerable, present and too real. It was as though Macbeth were in control of the scene, prompting, and the children replying. There was no dizzying confusion as the witches vanished and reappeared. It was too stilted and slow-paced. The children used dolls to suggest some sort of voodoo magic, they were a bit freaky, more a hindrance to the scenes. The children walked around holding them, but made little dramatic use of them except to suggest the characters they spoke of. Not creepy.

Madness. For me, Macbeth’s tyrannous progression is from ‘vaulting ambition’ to all-engrossing insanity, in partnership with a manipulative, beguiling wife. Lady Macbeth was most certainly ancillary in this production, confirming for Macbeth what he already wished to do; in some productions the Macbeths are presented as equals, or even Lady Macbeth as the more powerful. Lady Macbeth here was fine. Her sleep walking speech was fine, she captured some of the insanity, it was a little bit scary, it was quite mad, though it was without climax (the same can be said of the play). She was quite manipulative. She was very aristocratic with a hint of Scottish in her voice, sometimes. I liked her sort of crazy evil laughter at the dinner party. I liked the repetition of that scene with and without Banquo.

Macbeth seemed to have been directed to progress from a not-convincingly brave soldier, naively taken in by three children, whom he neither seemed frightened by, nor particularly aghast at their presence (in fact, it felt as though he were expecting the kids to mess up – he spoke patronisingly to them), to a babyish King and finally to a middle-aged man who is a bit fed up with life. His ‘strut the stage’ speech was projected from the top of a 7m ladder – I think to suggest him standing up on cattle battlements looking down to Birnham wood (four tree like leafy branches brought on by Mrs Macduff and her three children – their ghosts were Malcolm’s army). Whilst his elevated position removed him from the stage and thus he transcended metaphorically the players he spoke of,  he spoke as one who just cannot be bothered, cannot continue living. There was no sudden moment of eloquence in the madness, which instigates the result of catharsis, as the hero comes to the realisation that he cannot go on living. The magic of the speech can silence the audience into poised stillness; if well executed no one dares cough. People spluttered during this. The speech did not feel resultant, like it had come from frantic thoughts, or even from any remembrance of his murderous intents. Preceding the speech, every movement Macbeth made on the ladder meant his sword clanged against it. Irritating.

The cellos were fantastic. Awesome dissonance created, super technical playing.

The tour around the new theatre was more magical than the performance. I preferred the Court Yard theatre to see shows at. Row C in the Circle has a very uncomfortable seat, although the view was good, and I am glad I only paid for a £5 16-25 ticket. After The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet (twice), As You Like It and King Lear… well, it was a disappointment.

Let me know how you found the performance in the comments below. Have you seen the new theatre?

Macbeth RSC Website


6 Responses to “Macbeth at the RSC: Review”

  1. mark Ellerby April 26, 2011 at 12:46 pm #

    A great review! You have analysed precisely why this play failed to ignite all the expectations placed upon it. Like a child with with an amazing new toy, for all its cleverness and potential of the new space, playing with the ‘gizmos’ failed to deliver what words and pure theatre can do by themselves. So what if it’s a 7 meter ladder woopy-doo!! The sword clanging ladder speech – I can barely remember it. Birnham Wood? More Birnham Pot Plant!

    The cello’s as you say were superb. The dissonance, and deep reverberation brought out all the sinister spookiness that other aspects of the play lacked.

    I loved the ‘temporary/changeable’ feel of the Courtyard. Even more the transformation to fit the Roundhouse. The RSC/RST ‘homecoming’ for me was a disappointment but maybe that was because we expected so much. Despite all this I am sure we will be back…


  2. Grahame Humphries April 27, 2011 at 4:44 pm #

    I had high expectations of Michael Boyd’s ‘Macbeth’ but, apart from Jonathan Slinger’s excellent presentation of the character, I found the production overall dissapointing. I’ve seen ‘Macbeth’ 21 times over the past 51 years and thought that this would be up with the best of them. For me, the exchange of children for weird sisters just didn’t work. Cutting out some of the witches speeches spoilt the magic which the play can create. The time of Macbeth with his wife weighing up whether or not to murder Duncan lacked the interchange which is usually created at this point in the play when we are left trying to work out whether she is a mother image to his weak self our equal co- conspiritor. Cuts in the text didn’t help here. Given the information we have been told about how the cavern under the stage can be used to such good effect, I was surprised that Birnam Wood didn’t visibly appear before our eyes for the soldiers [in short supply] to cut off branches to march to Dunsinane. The repeating of lines to introduce the first and last speeches were lost on me and seemed rather like the prompt having to get things underway. Some of the supporting cast were very good but overall I hope for better things when the Merchant of Venice graces the stage next month.

    • xobeksxo April 27, 2011 at 8:40 pm #

      Thanks for your response! Yes I agree that it lacked magic. I thought that the ‘prompt’ was confusing, especially if someone were seeing Macbeth without prior knowledge of the play. I assumed that the actor was inventively helping out another who had forgotten his lines, until I recalled that it was a repeated effect from the beginning.
      After the tour I had already seen the set as is at the end of the play, so I knew to expect an unimpressive wood. Certainly it was a shame, as you suggest, that they did not make more use of the facilities now avaliable. I felt the lack of soldiers (the ghosts of the Malcoms) negated the usual impending doom that is created by the progression of the army.

      • Susan April 30, 2011 at 11:57 pm #

        I saw Macbeth today. I felt that the use of the children instead of the witches was trying a bit too hard to be different, a rather modern cheap horror flick device, esp with the voodoo dollies! Cutting so much of the witches dialogue really changed the atmosphere of the piece; I couldn’t believe they dropped the hurly burly scene. The setting felt rather tentative; the branches stuck into the stage to represent Burnham was very am-dram and they wobbled when the actors moved near them. I guess the performers and technicians are still getting used to the new theatre but I have seen 8 productions at the Courtyard and I felt that they used that space much more bravely and inventively. I found this production to be really quite disappointing and that’s the first time I have said that about the RSC. Very much hoping to be won over with Merchant of Venice in the summer.

  3. therebeccaelliston May 6, 2011 at 10:52 am #

    Cannot wait to go back to stratford-upon-avon and see the new RSC theatre! haven’t been back since I saw Anthony and Cleopatra last year, Sounds like it was absolutely brilliant, wish I could of seen it. Great review.

    • John Doran July 17, 2011 at 5:56 am #

      loved Rupert G’s Romeo and Juliet in the Courtyard! Can’t wait to see what’s new about the place! nothing beats RSC’s 2001 production of MACBETH! It’s on youtube and it’s fantastic! Just youtbe search MACBETH RSC 2001

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