The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) has a habit, it seems, of relying on crowd pleasing. In 2016, their production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream stretched the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe to almost a third of the running time, which glazed over the play’s darker elements. More recently, Christopher Luscome’s Twelfth Night did attempt to balance tone more effectively, yet the melancholy of the text was still lost, with its comedy veering dangerously close to pantomime. Although this latest rendition of Macbeth does involve some unnecessary audience participation (at one point, I wouldn’t have been surprised if the poor spectator was invited onstage for a bag of sweets), plenty of time is devoted to making its darker themes striking and potent.
Peter Bradshaw in the programme describes Macbeth as the first ever horror film – and this is something that Polly Findlay had clearly picked up on. The sound design has a Hitchcockian feel to it, frequently building the tension with a screeching score. Throughout, significant lines (“what is done cannot be undone”) are projected onto a wall behind the actors and the projector’s light beams continually soar above the audience, which aesthetically transforms the theatre into a cinema-like space. Children are often used in horror to create a sinister atmosphere and to provoke a loss of innocence, although this can easily resort to cliché. Here, Findlay’s decision to cast three young girls as the three witches is ineffective – they wouldn’t feel out of place in a James Wan horror flick – and fails to create an eerie atmosphere. The stage is minimal, with neon blue lights illuminated around the edge. In moments of high tension, the lights flash and are accompanied by a deafening electrical buzz, casting the stage in an unnatural glow. These flashes evoke an oft-used trope in horror films, which allows the actors on the stage to move in moments of darkness, creeping up to their victims at a staggered pace (“Don’t blink!” came to mind…). Whilst the children fail to create an eerie atmosphere, these moments are impactful and unsettling.
Christopher Eccleston, making his RSC debut as the titular figure, is suitably macho in the role. He deftly embodies the spirit of Macbeth as a brutish soldier lacking in judgement, although he doesn’t quite convince in some of the character’s more vulnerable moments, especially alongside the domineering Lady Macbeth. Niamh Cusack excels in Lady Macbeth’s later scenes as she descends into madness – she circles the stage as if possessed, clawing out to the audience. However, she lacks authority in the first half and her introduction completely falls flat. There’s nothing particularly striking about these performances, but they’re perfectly effective.
What’s more striking here is the set design. Last year’s production of Salomé saw iridescent petals from the ceiling and, more recently, Twelfth Night transported the play to the 1890s by crafting an aesthete’s paradise. Both relied on gimmicky theatrics and Macbeth is no exception in this respect. But regardless of this, the mise-en-scène is impeccable. The entrance of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth after their coronation, in particular, is jaw-droppingly beautiful. In addition to the rectangular stage below, a window pane is positioned above actors and this is where some of the play’s key scenes are staged. The witches’ second prophecy, which usually results in eight dead kings walking in a line past Macbeth, is instead manifested in eight glistening gold crowns hovering above the actors. The witches often look over the proceedings in this space, too, and it is in these moments that their looming presence becomes more haunting.
The least successful part of this production is the emphasis on the porter. He remains on stage for the majority of the second half, but often dissipates the tension that the rest of the play has built so effectively. When Malcolm and his army do battle with Macbeth and come searching for him, the porter wryly looks at the audience and point comically in Macbeth’s direction. It is in these moments that the pantomime creeps in once again, which makes this performance slightly lose its edge. It’s nice to see the RSC shine a light on an often marginalised character and the subplot of Banquo’s murder is played for comedy in a surprisingly slick manner. However, the porter overstays his welcome towards the end and, as a result, some of the final scenes become tonally frustrating.
Time is key to understanding this adaptation. Most strikingly, a timer is positioned above the actors and after the death of Duncan, which starts ticking ominously in a two-hour countdown to Macbeth’s eventual death. When the digits first appear with Macbeth and Lady Macbeth onstage, in the aftermath of Duncan’s murder, it transforms the minimal set into an arena of paranoia. What’s more, it becomes a prescient metaphor for the instability of kingship and the anxiety of succession that pervades the play. It’s hardly a subtle device – but it’s a neat trick that pays off, especially in the very last scene.
Ditching the pantomime and taking a horror approach has worked to Macbeth’s advantage. This is a brave and beautifully stylised production and what it lacks in subtlety it makes up for in its chaotic, anxiety-inducing, and arresting spectacle. Findlay’s Macbeth proves that the RSC is still capable of producing exciting and experimental work – and the seemingly incongruous emphasis on horror and comedy will allow audiences to see the play in a new light.