Royal Shakespeare Company
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Review by Kevin Quarmby
"Double, double, toil and trouble." There, that should satisfy you hard and fast witch lovers. Ask any schoolchild what play that is from, and it's pretty likely they'll say Macbeth. Michael Boyd's new production of Shakespeare's strangely popular play at the RSC's newly refurbished Stratford venue does away with the Witches, offering instead three cadaver-like children. Their first appearance, hanged and hanging suspended above the forestage, is disturbing enough. When they start speaking, their utterances are as creepy as any horror genre movie. The effect on the production is to alter the farcically magical into the darkly supernatural. This is Macbeth meets Henry James's The Turn of the Screw.
We know all is not well in Scotland. The acting space is bare, covered with shattered, incomplete parquet flooring. The backdrop is a soaring church interior, complete with shattered stained glass windows above. Below, the walls are clad with ancient oak panelling. A balcony separates the crumbling stone from the wood, a single stage-right staircase leading pulpit-like to the stage. Upstage centre, a heavy oak door signifies the exit from church, from castle, and to hell. Medievalism and Tudor decay combine in this hell-mouthed house of horror.
The panelling is adorned with images of saints. Iconoclasm rules among the architectural violence. Painted faces are scratched away, statues smashed and lie broken among the religious detritus of pews and rood screens and Gothic carving. Like malign Banksy graffiti artists, the Reformation destroyers of Catholic iconography have worked their worst.
We are not alone in the deconstruction conjured by Tom Piper's evocative set. Not three witches, but three female cellists accompany the action, seated like sanctiloquent harpies. Their other-worldly scrapings create the screams of dying women or the rhythmic melody of military victory. They observe as events unfold at their feet.
As the play begins, a lone bloody Captain stands forlornly on stage. His mouth moves as he struggles to utter his words. Again and again, he tries to express the horrors he has seen on the field of battle. On the balcony level, stage left, a cleric with cross around his neck mouths and then voices the Captain's words. This religious vulture directs the action. There is holy wizardry afoot, unseen by Duncan and his military entourage.
The cleric turns out to be Ross (Scott Handy), who travels through the play as a decidedly militaristic pastor. Those familiar with the Jesuit priest, Henry Garnet, captured on the day of Guy Fawkes's execution and implicated in the Gunpowder Plot that threatened the lives of the ruling elite of England, will recognize the anti-Catholic implication of this imagery. Garnet is the mouthpiece of the Captain's bloody tale, as he becomes the mouthpiece of Malcolm's accession at the end of the play.
Equivocation and intrigue rule in this stylized portrayal of the political terrorism haunting the minds of the play's first royal recipients. Pity the poor American punter, overheard in the interval bar complaining about the Porter's heavy-handed visual allusion to suicide bombers. Obviously, this pyrotechnic nod at Gunpowder Plotting is lost on those unaware of the peculiarly British celebration of the nation's seventeenth-century 5/11.
Which leads to the bloody usurper, Macbeth. There is no doubt that Jonathan Slinger adds a level of nastiness to the role. Slinger's sonorous voice seems weary of the world even before he enters into the realm of the walking undead. This is a Macbeth more serial killer than military hero. There is no surprise. No hubris. Just the psychopathic decline of an everyday character who is as comfortable in the company of dead children as he is ordering their deaths. For Lady Macbeth, played by Aislín Mcguckin, there is nowhere to go. She obviously married a psycho and so to urge him on to greater misdeeds appears an unnecessary de-gilding of the lily. Mcguckin's sensual, sexual portrayal is wasted on a husband who seems incapable of responding to her charms. Lady Macbeth's decline into madness offers rejection rather than guilt as a motive.
Macbeth's demilitarized role is juxtaposed with the solid machismo of Steve Toussaint's Banquo. Resplendent in long flowing dreadlocks, this Banquo is totally believable as a warrior hero, forced by circumstance to consider the unimaginable - that his seed may give fruit to future kings. The loss of the Witches impacts on Banquo too, though. He regularly appears throughout the play. Although supposedly a ghost, his life force is so strong it often dominates a scene.
Rupert Gooldian touches abound. The first half ends with the bloody execution of Macbeth at the ethereal hands of Banquo's ghost. As in the famous Patrick Stewart Macbeth of 2006, the play's second half offers the opposing view. We see what the courtiers and Lady Macbeth see, a troubled, troubling psychopath rendered a child through self-realization. We also see a different physical world. Gone is the decay that represented the inner destructiveness of Macbeth's mind. We are now in an impeccable medieval hall, everything neat and in place.
Claustrophobic and strangely enclosed, Macbeth's chapel-like castle is the site of new horrors as we meet Caroline Martin's feisty Lady Macduff, and learn the truth of the children's ghostly prognostications. Aidan Kelly's excellent Macduff has yet to confront the reality of his escape to England. That reality regularly appears as the children, one brandishing a Charles Manson cross on the forehead and all grey and bloodless and creepily all-knowing.
Michael Boyd presents an entirely re-envisioned Macbeth, running at two hours, twenty-five minutes including interval. Because, later in the season, the company will stage a 'lost' play by Shakespeare called Cardenio, they feel ready to create an equally 'lost' Macbeth, untouched by interpolators like Thomas Middleton. Middleton's authorial hand, it's believed, accounts for much of the First Folio play's witchcraft. What the RSC have created is a thoroughly entertaining, decidedly disturbing theatrical experience, devoid of this suspect witchery.
Macbeth is now a ghost-story horror biopic, exploring the life and crimes of a serial murderer and his complicit wife. Social historians will enjoy many of the visual and aural gags. Audiences will enjoy the speed and simplicity of the plot. Unless you know the play and know what's been expunged - "Saw you the weird sisters?" becomes "Saw you the children?" - much of the play's moral dilemma will be lost. Entertaining, definitely, though I personally like a malignant Witch and an incantation or two.