William Shakespeare
Royal Shakespeare Company
Northern Stage, Newcastle

Production photo

This is a long Macbeth, running for just over three hours, including interval, and it's long not only because very little has been cut, but also because director Conall Morrison has added a considerable amount of stage "business". It opens with a battle scene in which we see Macbeth and Banquo in action, their swords very definitely smoking "bloody execution", but it is not only enemy soldiers they kill but women and children too. Indeed we watch Macbeth, admittedly hesitantly, kill a baby. Is this the man whose wife describes him as "too full of the milk of human kindness"?

The dead mothers then rise and become the Witches who thereafter appear throughout the play, pushing Macbeth all the time, even to the extent of controlling Banquo's body like a puppet in the banquet scene. It's an interesting idea which, I have to admit, carried me along throughout the play: it was only afterwards that I began to wonder what had happened to the tragedy. Surely the essence of the play is that, once the idea of his becoming king is planted in Macbeth's mind, his own "vaulting ambition" takes over, encouraged by his wife?

Why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs
Against the use of nature?

This Macbeth is not seduced into evil: he is bludgeoned.

As are we, the audience. There is a literalness about the production - the dagger which Macbeth sees in his mind becomes a real dagger (or three daggers to be precise), driven into the stage by the Witches. The conflict between temptation and conscience is therefore lost and it is the Witches who prick the sides of his intent, rather than his own mind. And significantly the final act of the Witches, after the death of Macbeth, is to bury their children whose bodies they have carried in suitcases since the opening scene. Macbeth has become a play about revenge.

It is undoubtedly a powerful production, with sound (Mike Compton) and music (Conor Linehan) making major contributions to its effectiveness, but it is an example of directorial Shakespeare which has the effect - as always! - of somehow reducing the original.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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