Macbeth (RST, May/June/August 2011)

Looking back on the 2011 RSC Macbeth..

Susannah Clapp writing in The Observer noted that there was a little bit of the Turn of the Screw about the RSC production of Macbeth and this was one of my thoughts when I first saw it for the first time back in May.  Indeed, when I first saw it, I  left thinking about the film The Others as well.  As characters die on stage, Seyton/Porter (Jamie Beamish) opens the door to the back of the stage for the ghosts to exit, but it is as if they are compelled to return back to the action.  It felt as if the dead did not know that they were dead and continued to inhabit the play world after their parts had ended.

The action seemed to be manipulated by Ross (Scott Handy), and in this production he was such an enigma.  It was as if he wasn’t in this world of the action and was in it at the same time.  At the opening, he stood at the front of the Circle and looked down at the characters on the thrust stage.  He was like a narrator starting the play off as he prompted Malcolm (Howard Charles) to start speaking “As two spent swimmers’.  In usurping the witches’ opening scene, Ross also became a witness to the gruesome horror, the all-knowing spectator.  He was sick when he saw the murdered body of Duncan, but as the play progressed, it felt that he became more complicit in the action. At one  point he used alcohol as a crutch to cope with what he’d seen, but at another he stood by and watched as the Macduff children are murdered.  At first, Ross seemed to be a balance to Seyton (or Satan as I felt he was in this production), but as the play moved towards its conclusion Ross seemed to become more like him and in the end it felt that he was on the same side as Satan, and acting as agent for the supernatural.  At the end and the start of the play Ross is like an audience who know the play and can chant the words along with the actors, but sit  there as observers because they have no agency to interfere in the play world?

The production  replaced the witches with children whose first appearance was to descend from the flies  dangling from meat hooks as if they were no more than macabre puppets, but then they suddenly shuddered and came alive.  Their song was chilling and haunting.  If they are Lady Macduff’s children, time becomes disjointed, adding another lair of intrigue in this production. As an audience we are never sure.

I thought that Jonathan Slinger’s Macbeth became more frantic as the play moves forward.  He wrapped himself in his robes to hide himself, as if he made real the drunk hope that he had dressed himself.  The banquet scene, which straggles the interval, was played twice – first the scene from Macbeth’s point of view and then again from the guests’ point of view.  What we had seen was an insight into Macbeth’s head. He is a man who starts off as one of the lads and becomes alone and isolated as he becomes more sure of himself.  The irony is that he was also doubtful and insecure.

The murder of Lady MacDuff’s children was chilling, especially as the little girl was taken away by one of the murderers but still killed.  She ran to exit through Seyton’s door before he closed it and Macduff  (Aidan Kelly) ran after to have the door slammed in his face.  I really liked the way that the ghosts of Lady Macduff and her children followed Macduff around. The last scene was carefully choreographed so that Macbeth’s death is caused by those he murders.

Jamie Beamish’s performance as  Seyton/Porter was a joy.  He could be sinister and humorous at the same time. The business with fireworks was really funny, but fitted so well into the overall aesthetic of the production.

I saw this five times across the run, and during that time I also observed Jonathan Slinger’s hair change colour from blond back to its natural colour (for his portrayal of Lenny in The Homecoming).  The new theatre space is certainly intimate.  At times I was so close to the action that I could almost touch the actors.  I could smell the sweat, and the leather of Banquo’s coat and the dying moments of the Porter’s fireworks. There were times Macbeth was inches away from me, and I could feel his tension. I think this adds to the experience of watching.

I know that the production had mixed reviews, and there were some silly bits like all the Banquo dolls appearing out of the flies and Macbeth descending on a throne – because you can in the new theatre – but I really liked the way the production unnerved me and didn’t present me with answers.

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