William Shakespeare
The Royal Shakespeare Company
BBC Four and BBC iPlayer

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Macbeth Credit: Richard Davenport
Macbeth Credit: Richard Davenport
Macbeth Credit: Richard Davenport

Shakespeare was writing at a time when it possible to give audiences a good scare. In the Bard’s day, the audience would be afraid of a king being deposed knowing, in the social upheaval that would follow, they would probably end up as cannon fodder. There was also a widespread belief in the supernatural so a play like Macbeth, combining regicide with witchcraft, would be a terrifying experience.

Nowadays, audiences are less squeamish about these subjects, so director Polly Findlay seeks present-day equivalents for her stripped-down, modern-dress production drawing upon images from horror movies, with which the audience is already familiar, to prompt them towards terror. It has a distracting effect. Instead of concentrating on the play, your mind wanders wondering if the Weird Sisters, dressed in pyjamas as innocent children, are meant to remind us of the twins in Kubrick’s version of The Shining or the red-coated child in Don’t Look Now.

There are other distractions. Lines from the text are projected as surtitles over the stage. Unfortunately, the purpose of the extracts—apart from occasionally specifying where scenes are occurring—is not always clear. The Porter sits to the side of the stage like a demonic scorekeeper maintaining a tally of Macbeth’s victims and making the occasional sardonic comment.

Christopher Eccleston’s Macbeth is not so much a plain solider as blunt and abrupt, even ignorant; keeping his hat on in the presence of the King. Far from hesitating to perform the actions needed to take the throne, Eccleston is openly greedy from the beginning—jumping the gun and stepping forward uninvited when Duncan begins to announce his successor. It raises doubts as to whether such a greedy character would require prompting by his wife to climb the greasy pole to the crown. The absence of any sign of guilt makes it hard to have any sympathy for such a crude character.

Far from a calculating, sinister Lady Macbeth, Niamh Cusack is hyperactive, behaving as if the moment she has been awaiting all her life has finally arrived and needs to be grabbed before it is missed. The approach makes it credible she would descend quickly into hysteria.

The best performance is, however, Edward Bennett‘s understated Macduff, transformed by unspeakable loss from a timid bureaucrat into a terrifying warrior.

Macbeth is often taken as a comment on the corrosive effect of ambition and greed upon a character who initially seems decent. Findlay moves the theme from the tragedy of an individual destroyed by his own ambition towards the concept that power corrupts everyone. The audience is aware throughout the play that Macbeth is heading for destruction as a digital clock is visible counting down to his defeat. Once Macbeth is deposed, the clock resets, suggesting his successor (and by extension anyone coming to power) is sliding down the path to disgrace from the moment of his coronation. The results of the last few general elections show it is possible to go from bad to worse with changes of those in power; so, Findley’s viewpoint is hard to refute, but it is not as dramatically satisfying as watching the damnation of a noble character.

Efforts to make Macbeth accessible to a contemporary audience have toned down many of the original disturbing features that make the play so compelling

Reviewer: David Cunningham