This Bank and Shoal of Time

This Bank and Shoal of Time

Macbeth, tragedy in five acts by William Shakespeare, RSC, Barbican Theatre, Saturday 10th November 2018, directed by Polly Findlay, reviewed by Leslie Jones

Time, as critic Michael Billington reminds us, is a recurrent theme in Macbeth. (The Guardian, 21st March 2018). Indeed, Shakespeare’s text is replete with references to its passage. In Polly Findlay’s production, accordingly, a digital clock counts down the little that remains of Macbeth’s life after Duncan’s murder. If “fate and metaphysical aid” will have him crowned, it will also have him killed. In the final scene, as Malcolm is hailed the new King of Scotland, the clock is re-set. Another cycle of tyranny commences.

In an earlier, notable production of Macbeth by Rupert Goold, premiered at Chichester in Summer 2007, with Patrick Stewart in the leading role, the three witches were assistants in a morgue. In this current production at the Barbican, they are no less sinister, as played by small children dressed in red, in a possible allusion to Don’t Look NowThe Shining and Schindler’s List.

There are other striking elements, too, such as the split level staging. This device underlines the detachment of Duncan’s court from the power play and butchery going on below. The parade of eight future kings, the “seed of Banquo”, the last with a mirror in his hand, and Lady Macbeth’s sleep walk, also take place in the glass screened gallery. Michael Hodgson, the porter, played several roles, including the third murderer and caretaker, who chalks up the death toll on a blackboard. He was on the stage throughout. Duncan was depicted as border-line demented (shades of King Lear) and was confined to a wheelchair. The design by Fly Dans, the lighting by Lizzie Powell and the music by Rupert Cross were memorable. Ditto, the dazzling costumes of the royal couple.

Christopher Eccleston, the 9th Dr Who, with his ripped torso and perfect plank, was a physically convincing warrior king, “Bellona’s bridegroom”, no less. He excelled in the Banquet scene; likewise, when he bamboozled the two murderers. He seemed less comfortable, however, in the set piece soliloquies. Edward Bennett as Macduff, in contrast, looked more like a solicitor than a soldier. His rendition of the lines on discovering Duncan’s body, “Oh horror, horror, horror! Tongue nor heart cannot conceive nor name thee’’, was bathetic. Niamh Cusak as Lady Macbeth was suitably febrile and frenetic.

Although significantly shorter than Shakespeare’s other great tragedies, Macbeth has its longueurs. Lady Macduff’s tiresome exchanges with her son (“Sirrah, your father’s dead…”) and Malcolm’s laboured litany of his vices, spring to mind. But, happily, the “action…moves at a tremendous lick” (Michael Billington). There is no tarrying here.

Dr Leslie Jones is Editor of QR

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