This is a Lady Macbeth who is bitter about childlessness – unlike Duff’s, who seems grateful not to be raising children in such a hellhole – and who, without someone to channel her energies into moulding, makes her husband into a surrogate child. It is ultimately the death of Lady Macduff and her son that drives the point home: dragged off-stage to die, mouths covered, the audience only hears Young Macduff’s dying words some seconds later: ‘he has kill’d me, mother’ is spoken through speakers in the darkness, and then a light comes on through the Perspex screen above the stage, revealing Lady Macbeth at a desk – her husband’s presumably – with Lennox’s tape recorder in hand, playing the Young Macduff’s dying words over and over. At this moment of time’s subversion, where we hear these words after his death has been indicated, and before the play’s chronology suggests that Lady Macbeth herself could even hear them, Lady Macbeth goes insane. Partly this is because of time and the effect of the repetition, but mostly it is in the murder of an innocent child, which recalls for Lady Macbeth the lack that drove her to most of her actions. The duality of this realisation is too much for her psyche and, visible through the screen, she breaks down, screaming and crying as the words repeat, no longer a taped reproduction but a mental one, memorised and mimicked in the mind of Lady Macbeth until her demise.
Duff and Cusack are anomalies in their respective productions, shining far brighter than their cast-mates, including the respective leads. Perhaps this was intentional, a comment on how Lady Macbeth eclipses her husband; but this seems reaching. What is so problematic about this disparity is that both productions heavily relied on imagery of “The Macbeths” for their advertising campaigns and various production materials. Just look at the poster art for both productions: capitalising on the couple, each poster implies something about intimacy. Kinnear and Duff are physically together, Kinnear cradling himself under Duff’s chin, her head reclined. Eccleston and Cusack sit on the edge of, presumably, their marital bed. However, intimacy is rendered complex: Kinnear and Duff both have parted lips, suggesting the erotic, but the contrast between Kinnear’s gaze towards the camera and Duff’s upwards-stare, into the distance, implies some kind of difference between the two. Kinnear’s hand on Duff’s clavicle, in the foreground of the image, is imposing and restrictive, giving Duff nowhere to move. If this is intimacy, it is painful and pained, desperate. Meanwhile, Eccleston and Cusack sit a good foot apart, chaste and fully dressed in formal attire. The bed is made behind them, too. And in another parallel, both pictures present only half of each characters face (for the RSC, this applies to the version of the image used on the programme and poster, rather than the square version used online); to me this seems a comment about the duality of the pair, the unhealthy, symbiotic mass, two people necessarily co-dependent. This is the final nail in the coffin of “expectation”: the marketing for these two plays pins everything on this couple. But neither production features a pair compelling enough to carry the action alone, an unfortunate result given the all-star casting, and a sure reason for much of the critical disappointment. It is up to Duff and Cusack to make the most of what they have; and in the #MeToo age, Lady Macbeth would probably be far more interesting to stage and to watch anyway.
There are some notable directorial choices across the two productions that indicate some collective consciousness. The first that occurs to me is Malcolm played by Parth Thakerar at the NT and Luke Newberry at the RSC, is in both productions played very young (perhaps either side of twenty), really emphasising his unreadiness to lead anything. I think this also indicates a focus on the divide between young and old; Duncan and the old guard have little in common with these Malcolms, a divide especially noticeable in the NT production. At a time when there are accusations from those in my generation that our futures are being sabotaged by older generations, this choice seems inevitable. But Donalbain is a noteworthy contrast; while the RSC have Donalbain played by a young woman (Donna Banya), a doting caretaker for Duncan, the NT efface Donalbain completely. It all rests on Malcolm, whether because he is the only son of the throne, or the only child at all. And this leads on to the use of children in both productions; in the RSC there is an abundance of them, the three witches and Fleance and Young Macduff. But in the NT production there are no children; the witches are adults, and both Fleance and Young Macduff are played by female members of the company. For the RSC, children are the spectre haunting the stage as their absence haunts the main characters; for the NT, there is sheer barrenness. This is communicated nicely by a piece of serendipity: both productions feature dolls in the possession of the witches, but in the NT production these dolls are dismembered and strewn around the witches as belts and sashes of baby-doll-limbs.
Both productions portray Banquo (Kevin Harvey – NT; Raphael Sowole – RSC) and Fleance as persons of colour, which reminds me of the number of recent productions of Hamlet to feature black men in the role of Fortinbras. Perhaps this is unconscious coincidence; and given that these productions seem little concerned with questions of race, I can’t imagine what this would be intended to convey – except perhaps the idea of restitution and the establishment of a new guard. Elsewhere, neither choice for Macduff is particularly inspiring; Patrick O’Kane as the NT’s Macduff is basically an angrier and more menacing Macbeth, and coming across as more of a personal, annoying bane than a physical, imposing one. Arguably the RSC’s middle-class accountant dad Macduff (played by Edward Bennett) is worse, wet and unconvincing in his grief; while I get Findlay’s intention behind this man who is not battle-hardened being drawn towards it by circumstance, it does not make for believable or engaging theatre. The witches had little in common too; the NT’s witches are not in any way cohesive, distracting and confusing and in many cases unintelligible. For the RSC’s creepy little girl witches (with many a comparison to The Shining’s Grady twins already being made), innocence and the most perfectly mindless chanting makes them clear and effective (even if one of the three was virtually impossible to hear in act four, scene one). Another major similarity between the two productions was the choice to make everyone English rather than Scottish – I say this generally, as there were a variety of accents on display. Some actors in both productions seemed to try a Scottish accent in the first half of the play, giving up during the second. This is inevitable and not in itself a problem, even though the play is popularly referred to as “The Scottish Play”. What is a problem is, once again, marketing; the RSC, both in the lead-up to the production and after its opening, have used #TheScottishPlay on their social media channels to denote Macbeth. If you are removing the Scottishness of the play, it seems a weird (and potentially disappointing) marketing move to capitalise on its famous Scottishness. This is not about playing with audience’s expectations so much as thoughtlessly misleading them.
Before I discuss the most significant shared aspect of the play, I want to briefly mention Lady Macduff. She is in many ways an incidental character, paling in comparison to the only other major woman of the play. Yet in the RSC’s production, Mariam Haque not only holds her own but damn well stuns as Lady Macduff, treading the fine knife-edge between nervousness and terror, by turns funny and warm and hopeless in her conversation with Ross, and struggling to convince her son when she falsely tells him his father is dead. This allows the jest of the moment to come out quite nicely – a moment of bleak humour rather than psychological abuse. And when Lennox appears and she reaches for her son and holds him, I believe in every way that she would die to protect her children, that some animalistic instinct might actually defeat Lennox – were she not so clearly outnumbered, and ultimately paralysed by fear. And so a moment of necessary plot (not particularly memorable in the NT production) becomes an emotional peak for the RSC production.
The “most significant shared aspect” to which I alluded earlier is the Porter, a role I generally have little care for and am rarely impressed by in performance. Both productions have heavily expanded the role of the Porter (Trevor Fox – NT; Michael Hodgson – RSC), increasing his stage presence and complicity in the action, giving him more lines, enfolding many of the minor parts; for instance both productions have him play the third murderer and actively intervene in the murder of Banquo and the escape of Fleance. To an extent, the Porter is a god-like rendering of The Dark Knight’s Joker, an “agent of chaos” whose purpose is to watch the world burn. But this does not feel sufficient, because he is a director not just of chaos but also of resolve; he enables the murder and madness of the plot purely to enable its ultimate resolution. In that he is perhaps Hecate-like (both productions also cut Hecate completely, widely regarded to be an invention of Thomas Middleton), the entity behind the witches and the prophecies; Machiavellian-like, the Porter becomes the maker of fate for everyone involved, the only one with real agency. The NT production renders him as a kind of homeless visionary-mercenary-investigator, a product of the apocalypse; the RSC’s Porter is ostensibly a janitor, present on-stage (alongside Lady Macbeth) even before the action begins, and never leaving the stage, therefore maintaining the most stage-time. In both productions, the Porter directly or indirectly allows Fleance to get away; the RSC’s Porter even points Macduff in the direction of a cowering Macbeth to enable the play’s conclusion, and is the one who actively sets the two-hour timer and marks its completion. The Porter chillingly tallies the deaths at the hands of the Macbeths, starting with Duncan, in chalk on the exposed brick wall, thus embodying something of an angel of death.