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Illyria Online

‘Macbeth means Macbeth’: National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, and "collective consciousness"

Juliano Zaffino

 © National Theatre,  Macbeth  (Image Left); RSC,  Macbeth  (Image Right)

© National Theatre, Macbeth (Image Left); RSC, Macbeth (Image Right)

*The following contains spoilers for both the National Theatre’s and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s productions of Macbeth.*


‘Macbeth means Macbeth’: National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, and "collective consciousness"

“Brexit means Brexit” means, in words somewhat more meaningful and somehow less cryptic, “what’s done cannot be undone”. If you are asking why suddenly Macbeth is the Shakespearean play-of-the-moment (as post-Brexit King Lear has been, as post-Trump Julius Caesar has been), perhaps it’s in this idea of irrevocability. The dice have been cast and the verdict is in, final, even as it seems that democracy has been established by being perverted, disrespected; there is no undo button, no way out, and no chance of turning back time. Time, the plot, the fate of the nation: all arrow-like rushing to their inevitable targets. The National Theatre’s Macbeth, which had its first preview on 26 February 2018, and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Macbeth, which had its first preview on 14 March 2018 (after their original first preview on 13 March was cancelled with just over 24 hours notice), were of course bound to be run through the comparison mill. Which is better? Which director – Rufus Norris for the NT and Polly Findlay for the RSC – has better executed the play? Which leading actor – Rory Kinnear for the NT and Christopher Eccleston for the RSC – best captures Macbeth’s oscillations? Which Lady Macbeth – Anne-Marie Duff for the NT and Niamh Cusack for the RSC – is more compelling? When the National Theatre’s press performance passed on 4 March, the reviews were dismal; when the RSC’s press performance passed on 20 March, the reviews were mixed. And so the focus of the conversation has largely shifted: which production/director/actor is worse, and why? For which theatrical superpower should we use our best put-downs (not to mention our least-inspired Shakespearean puns) to convey our disdain?

The fact is that these productions are by-and-large incomparable with one another. The colossus of the Olivier stage has supposedly blighted the NT for some time (when convenient for the critics, mostly), and in the case of these productions proves a stark contrast from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, most of which was walled-off, the action brought out almost entirely into the thrust stage. Rufus Norris has tapped into the public consciousness to consider the politics of our age, specifying in the programme that the setting of the play is ‘now, after a civil war’; the garbage that litters the set, the concrete blocks of the Macbeths’ dwellings, the ruinous set pieces and pervasive sense of decay all point towards some post-apocalyptic generality. Perhaps the murderers are another clue, young and seemingly witless; when Macbeth is giving them their task, the first murderer, a young denim-clad woman, gasps with glee when he hands her a can of something – a lager perhaps, or even a soda: something common signified as a luxury in the murderer’s unexpected excitement. A generation left behind by the wars of their elders live only to be accessorised by said elders.

 © Brinkhoff and Moegenburg, National Theatre

© Brinkhoff and Moegenburg, National Theatre

The essays written for the NT’s programme reveal some of the impetus behind Rufus Norris’ directorial vision, as well as the general matter at hand: why Macbeth, and why now? Dr Paul Prescott – who ‘arranged and edited the text’ for the NT’s production – convincingly tells us that ‘adaptations of Macbeth thrive in times of suspicion, paranoia and fear’, and ‘have also succeeded in any context in which status and survival are experienced as zero-sum games’. No doubt these boxes are ticked in the post-Brexit, post-truth world, a world of online surveillance and data leaks, where data and the masses are weaponised, where many are beset with hopelessness in response to systematic inequalities. But it doesn’t end there: according to Marianne Novy’s essay, ‘American Google gives 43,800 hits for comparisons between Lady Macbeth and Margaret Thatcher and 115,000 hits for comparisons to Hillary Clinton, as of January 2018’. As she rightly points out, ‘neither of these women persuaded a husband to kill a ruler’, so ‘why do so many political writers make this leap?’ In the #MeToo and #TimesUp age, wherein Theresa May is letting women down on this side of the Atlantic and Hillary Clinton recently lost the US election to a less-qualified and incomparably dangerous man on the other side, it is unsurprising that there is more focus on one of the few Shakespearean plays to present a complex, compelling and dynamic woman (especially as she is one of his rare older female characters).

What else? Marina Warner argues that a ‘belief in witches erupts in times of crisis’, evoking (in my mind at least) a concern adjacent to #MeToo. Women have had enough; women are addressing corrupt institutions and demanding both change and justice. The old guard – mostly men – are quaking. Shouts of a “witch hunt” have tried to smear this campaign, though are mostly dismissed as the desperate final cries of a dying behemoth. (As an aside, my own memory of this phrase is arguing with a 27 year-old man, who vehemently claimed that this ‘witch hunt’ was ‘getting out of hand’, that women were ‘making it up’, as a TV news channel behind him bore the headline: “LOUIS CK ADMITS TO SEXUAL MISCONDUCT”. You can’t make this stuff up.)

The NT Macbeth is a clear product of the times we live in. Norris has clearly heeded Lady Macbeth’s advice: ‘to beguile the time, look like the time’. Arguably Polly Findlay also listened to Lady Macbeth’s words, but with an alternative interpretation underpinning the RSC’s Macbeth. Findlay’s modern vision certainly looks like the time – its focus on modern horror films roots it in an aesthetic presence, while the horror and suspense certainly work to beguile a modern audience mostly familiar with Macbeth. The final moments between Macbeth and Macduff are weirdly reminiscent of Macbeth (/Washizu)’s final moments in the Kurosawa film adaptation of Macbeth, Throne of Blood (1957), in which Macbeth is pierced by dozens of arrows and remains alive, screaming, still clinging to life and power. There is the horror of the supernatural foe, like Halloween’s Mike Meyers (and reminiscent of Randy’s posthumous hypothesis on the killer in Scream 3); the monster who will not be vanquished by any human means. But Findlay flips the image beautifully, so that the immortal one in that moment is Macduff, beaten within an inch of his life but virtually unharmed, laughing, as Macbeth puts off the inevitable. It is only when Macbeth declares ‘enough’ that he stops for Macduff to finish him.

 © Akira Kurosawa; Toho Studios

© Akira Kurosawa; Toho Studios

Aside from horror, the other key focus of Findlay’s production is time itself, as a force, as an inevitability, as some Twilight Zone of obscurity and inherent beguilement – thus inherently bound to the horror, which does after all depend upon the coinciding of terror and timing. The modern setting mostly confined to the thrust (and thus brought closer, film-like, to the audience), the 80s-like special-effects that announce the witches, the suspenseful, eerie strings screeching at the most unlikely moments, the unexpected blackout when Banquo is murdered – all of this contributes to the feel of the staged horror film. In this sense, perhaps there is some similarity to the work of Ivo Van Hove that some reviewers have noted. The pseudo title-card projections that appear throughout the play, marking six distinct moments, give the production a Tarantino vibe. This puts to mind Kill Bill, another bloody tale, and one told with a non-linear approach to time and narrative; one of the title-cards that Findlay uses, pulling directly from the text, is ‘when the battle’s lost and won’ while another reads ‘the future in the instant’. Lady Macbeth is on-stage before the play begins, reading Macbeth’s letter; we then see things happening in order, until Lady Macbeth’s reading of the letter is separated from her response, again disrupting chronology.

The focus on time is a largely technical one, with chronological and geographical indicators (“NOW”; “LATER”; “FIFE”) projected below the title-cards, and beneath that a glaring red digital timer that begins – counting down two hours – when Macbeth kills Duncan, the moment at which the arrow is unloosed and the course for Macbeth (and Macbeth) is set. The eeriest effect is how the timer jumps forward by such minor increments, at times when the audience is distracted with the action elsewhere, so that not even a time-obsessed audience member monitoring his watch at five minute intervals can tell where and how the time is slipping away. The technical execution is flawlessly done so that Macbeth’s final lifeblood bursts from his jugular as the timer reaches 00:00:00. Then, in a textually altered, partially cut conclusion, Malcolm is crowned in slow-motion as Fleance comes forward, sword in hand and stood slightly off to the side, a reminder of what is to come. The timer goes back up, slowly at first, and then almost all-at-once, resting once again on the two-hour mark. The witches return for an ominous line-repeat, and the play ends in a dramatic, unsettling blackout.

 © Richard Davenport, RSC

© Richard Davenport, RSC

If it’s a heavy-handed way to consider the cyclicality of the bloodshed (‘blood will have blood’, after all), the cycle of violence and the succession of kings (eventually leading to Shakespeare’s then-ruling monarch, King James I), it’s a necessary one. It hammers home the point, and is the pièce-de-résistance of an abstraction of the horror: the inescapability of the loop that horror films depend on, and that such films as Happy Death Day have recently condensed and capitalised on. As a time-nerd (who once wrote an essay on Macbeth, time travel, and temporal causality loops), the final image in Findlay’s production to me epitomises the play’s paradox, that the beginning of the loop must be its end; the knowledge of Macbeth’s future precipitates his actions and, self-fulfilling, leads through every moment right up to his death. And so every action depends on something that follows just as much as something that precedes it. ‘The time is free’: when Macbeth dies, the loop is broken, the paradox conquered. ‘What’s done cannot be undone’: Fleance’s ascent to the throne is inevitable, merely a matter of time, the end of the next loop and the beginning of another. The repetition of history and man’s helplessness against that force is the truest horror.

 © Richard Davenport, RSC

© Richard Davenport, RSC

If the first comparison to be made is between productions and motivations, the analysis speaks for itself; the lack of analysis made into the NT production indicates the struggle, for though it is clear that the post-Brexit, post-Trump, #MeToo, “witch hunt” amalgam played on the minds of those involved, it is unclear how the production really bore those themes to fruition. Tokenistic set-dressing and minor references do not imply the kind of cohesion that is necessary to convey a specific vision or reading. Meanwhile at the RSC the themes are to be found clearly within the text and the production merely brings them to the forefront; so (as I will discuss further) despite certain criticism levelled at Polly Findlay and her “interference” with Shakespeare, it is worth noting that she seems to trust the text and its contents a lot more than Norris does. And unsurprisingly – though trying to make this play explicitly about the political “now” (after a post-Brexit civil war, of course) in half-measured gestures without any holistic view or clear reliance on the text – Norris is not tarnished with the same critical brush.

***

It is no surprise that the actor playing the titular role is often a key interest for reviewers (and, evidently, for general theatre-goers, given how well the RSC’s Macbeth has sold with Eccleston in the lead). Rory Kinnear at the National Theatre and Christopher Eccleston at the RSC seemed poised to provide a head-to-head for the ages, and reviewers have been generally favourable for both performances, describing them as stranded by their productions. Perhaps this is somewhat true of Kinnear, who has the emotional earnestness needed for the more heart-breaking soliloquies as well as the just-shy-of-manliness that makes Lady Macbeth’s question ‘are you a man?’ seem all the more relevant.

 © Tristram Kenton, National Theatre

© Tristram Kenton, National Theatre

Meanwhile Eccleston lacks emotional depth; he is every bit the soldier, but his emotion is unbelievable, his madness cringe-worthy. When he hears of his wife’s death he appears as a gold-struck magpie and sounds as one amused by some pun or a light news story; the gulf between his physical and vocal performances is distracting and, unfortunately, detrimental to the production as a whole. And that says nothing of the constant stepping on other people’s lines, the delayed responses, the unfortunate flubs (“the last syllacle of recorded time”, in the matinee performance on 24 March). But one thing that cannot be said of Eccleston’s disappointing portrayal is blandness; Kinnear’s portrayal is beige carpet that you forget even as you look at it. Kinnear does not stand out as Macbeth; from what I’ve seen of his work previously in Young Marx, he is a competent actor with a quick wit and an emotional deftness of hand, and as I have said the emotional honesty comes through. But there is nothing memorable in it, no moment that feels as though the actor has truly actualised his own embodiment of this character. Between the passiveness he induces, and the frustration that Eccleston invites, both productions have a glaring black hole at their hearts: their titular leads.

 © Richard Davenport, RSC

© Richard Davenport, RSC

Lady Macbeth is the driving force behind Macbeth and, on both of these occasions, a driving force behind Macbeth. In fact, in the case of the NT production, Anne-Marie Duff is the only driving force, the redeeming quality of the drabness. Duff is a talent nonpareil (as recently confirmed in my eyes by her stint in Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle) and her desperately-yearning Lady Macbeth is one of the most sympathetic and understandable. When she reads the letter near the play’s beginning, surrounded by the littleness of her life, in her lack of pretence, I entirely believe that this is a woman who wants more – status and wealth maybe, but power and control mostly, the ability to influence, to make some kind of dent in the world around her. As she spends most of the later part of the play trying to clean up after Macbeth, to keep him in control, it becomes clear that, as the witches double-speak their prophecies, Lady Macbeth’s wish has been duplicitously granted, as if by a trickster genie. She got to exert control over her husband, and the result was that it sent him out-of-control, and so the only thing left within her control, in absolute terms, is her life. And from the blood smeared on the wall when Macbeth finds her body, we are to understand that she took that control, momentarily conquering the sleepwalking self, in order to end the struggle. She is like most of us, especially minorities, who in troubling times are made to feel the most powerless; and so her actions, the propulsion of the play, is cast in an unexpected clarity and a chilling relatability: the realisation that, actually, in her shoes, we’d probably do the same.

 © Brinkhoff and Moegenburg, National Theatre

© Brinkhoff and Moegenburg, National Theatre

Niamh Cusack’s Lady Macbeth is no less powerful, though admittedly shares little with Duff’s. Where Duff’s desperation makes her solid and assured, Cusack is skittish and flighty, unpredictable and thus all the more terrifying. And while Duff is the meek wife wanting more, Lady Macbeth is already suited to a better life, and fits into any fancy garment as easily as her first, most casual outfit, eliciting a laugh as she kicks off her clacking heels to return the knives to King Duncan’s men. She is comfortable around the king and every other character, whether their status is above or below hers; she is a social butterfly with camouflage wings and a stinger, one who uses the femininity she would reject as a mask for the ambition that moves her. But this comparison led me to question: what motivates Cusack’s Lady Macbeth? Blind ambition is surely not enough – but this Lady Macbeth does not seem to be wanting for much. Which put me in mind of theatre’s other destructive would-be matriarch, Hedda Gabler, and led me to think that Cusack’s portrayal is of a woman bored to death with her life. While Hedda arguably suits Duff’s need to regain control over something, Cusack captures the insanity – in every unexpected jump, clap, laugh and outburst – that comes from being bored out of one’s mind, of wanting anything other than the status quo.

 © Richard Davenport, RSC

© Richard Davenport, RSC

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.

 © Richard Davenport, RSC

© Richard Davenport, RSC

The forces conspiring against us are not only human but banal, the persons in society with, relatively speaking, the lowest status. This goes directly against not just the nature of the play but also the nature of our current collective consciousness, which regards institutions and organisations as being the forces that control us, rather than an individual – let alone one with no status. What both Norris and Findlay have done is to create a world in which we should be wary of those who pretend to look like the lowest amongst us, who blend into the background, all the while conspiring against everyone, for his sake only.

***

The reviews that poured in for Rufus Norris’ production at the National Theatre have been, by and large, excruciatingly negative. As the Artistic Director of the NT, surely the expectations were greatly inflated for his production. And, as many reviewers are keen to point out, the play is only his second-ever Shakespeare, his first in twenty-five years. High expectations, an emphasis on a lack of Shakespearean output, and an almost palpable willingness for Norris to fail: a foreboding start. Further, given the trio of terrible reviews for productions on the Olivier’s stage last year (Common, Salome, and Saint George and the Dragon), the “Olivier curse” meme has propagated, continuing the notion that there is something inherently problematic with that stage that dooms 90% of directors and productions. In that sense, the odds were truly stacked against Norris. While his production was not spectacular, and certainly not up to the level of some of the recent work on the National’s other stages (Angels in America and Network in the Lyttleton Theatre and Mosquitoes in the Dorfman Theatre, for starters), it was certainly not deserving of the critical maiming it received.

Things have gone somewhat differently for Polly Findlay and the RSC, though much of the burden she faces in her reviews is the inevitable comparison with the National’s production, opening a good two weeks earlier. Although, on the whole, reviews for Findlay’s production have been kinder (in words and in star ratings), the fact is that reviewers have undeniably attacked Findlay for her concept. Reviewers – and some supposedly professional general opinion-peddlers – claim that the play is more about her than Shakespeare. I have seen it written, sometimes plainly and sometimes in code, that she should trust more in the play and in Shakespeare, that she should just “do the play”, that her role is something other than communicating a vision. To which I would respond: what the hell is the point? If Polly Findlay can’t make the play her own, why should she bother doing it? Why should anyone? Perhaps I’m the only one who is tired of seeing “just the play”, and feeling like pedestal-Shakespeare is mocking us all. I wonder for the role of the director as, increasingly, we are moving away from appreciating their vision and look for them to merely facilitate a text into performance. And very often with new writing, directors are all but invisible, critical focus aimed mostly at the writer, sometimes at the cast. I think with partial dread and intrigue of Shakespeare’s Globe, who later this year will mount a director-less production of Hamlet. Clearly (especially from their marketing) the focus is on "Writer: William Shakespeare". And though I do not think it is impossible or even a bad idea to try out, I worry that the director could be increasingly phased out of the process. This points towards a world of recital and re-enactment rather than production. If we “just do the play” forever, the play will never be anything more than a collection of dead words.

 © Shakespeare's Globe,  Hamlet

© Shakespeare's Globe, Hamlet

I don’t do “star ratings” here, because generally I find them unhelpful and restrictive. That some reviewers can assign the same star rating to these two disparate Macbeths, that most positive reviews generally settle on four stars to communicate that something is either outstanding or just-above-digestible, that productions like Follies at the NT and Imperium at the RSC are for some unclear reason ranked amongst the five-star club… for these reasons and more, I have no faith in ratings. But Polly Findlay and the RSC deserve praise for what they have done with the play; this is a production that makes the play accessible and hugely enjoyable without obscuring what the play is or what it is about. Despite a couple of lacklustre performances, Findlay’s vision is so strong and well-executed, capitalising on a number of prevalent themes and never erring beyond what the play gives her to work with, that it truly shines. This production sits with Blanche McIntyre’s Titus Andronicus (RSC, 2017), Nicholas Hytner’s Julius Caesar (Bridge Theatre, 2018), and Findlay’s earlier foray into The Merchant of Venice (RSC, 2015) as some of the best big-budget Shakespeare to be staged in recent memory – with perhaps a special shout-out to Simon Godwin’s Twelfth Night (NT, 2017) which, despite its shortcomings, was redeemed by both a gorgeous design and a knock-out performance from Tamsin Greig, once again challenging the oft-held prejudice against the Olivier’s stage. Findlay has her finger on the pulse; I hope her next foray into Shakespeare (or other early-modern drama, fingers crossed for Marlowe) will not be marred by the same unfortunate timing and comparisons, and that by then we will have a new vanguard of reviewers who care more about good theatre than about demonstrating their infinite deference and reverence for centuries-old texts and their long-dead playwrights.

***

So why Macbeth? And why now? Like Julius Caesar this play is ripe for the picking in contemporary productions but, unfortunately, feels a little lacking; the NT production attempted to tap into the zeitgeist to interpret the play but, in practice, fell short. The RSC steered largely clear of the political present and for the most part succeeded. But the collective, cultural consciousness of our times precipitates this simultaneity, and even if the execution is not flawless it still reveals much about where we see ourselves now in the map of history. We are at a breaking point, the early stages of a crisis, a society on the verge of collapse. Disarray and hopelessness are fostered and forced by the selfish amongst us in their own pursuits, personal or (more often) political, the Farages and Johnsons and Goves and Rees-Moggs who would stop at nothing for their agendas, who would not hesitate to destroy any peace or machine to get what they want: power, the chiefest desire of Macbeth, the thing that history and theatre warns us is hard to obtain and even harder to keep. The collective consciousness is split between those who recognise this, and those who don’t. Those who do are drawn, now more than ever, to Macbeth.

***

Macbeth continues its run at the National Theatre until 23 June 2018, and will tour the UK from September 2018. Information and tickets are available here. The production will also be broadcast live to cinemas on 10 May 2018.
Macbeth continues its run at the Royal Shakespeare Company until 18 September 2018, and will transfer to the Barbican in London from 15 October 2018 until 18 January 2019. The Stratford-Upon-Avon run is almost entirely sold-out but there is currently good availability throughout its run at the Barbican. Information and tickets are available here. The production will also be broadcast live to cinemas on 11 April 2018.


*My initial micro-review of both productions of Macbeth, posted online after seeing the performances on 20 March / 24 March 2018 (RSC) and 21 March 2018 (NT), is as follows: “Last week within 24 hours I saw two separate and very different productions of Macbeth. The RSC’s production was slick and beautifully executed by one of my directorial heroes, Polly Findlay, while the National Theatre’s was confusingly, hazily directed by Rufus Norris, and left me for the most part a little disinterested, unfortunately. It doesn’t deserve the critical assault it’s received but it was only average-at-best. On the other hand I could happily rave about the RSC’s production for time to come, given that it combined many of my favourite things (contemporary setting, horror films, and a clear focus on time) into a clear and cohesive and damn gripping production - even if Christopher Eccleston was lacklustre. Both shows are easily stolen by their respective Lady Macbeths, Niamh Cusack (RSC) and Anne-Marie Duff (NT). Both worth watching for different reasons. If you can only see one, make it the RSC’s. And if you can only see one Shakespeare play at all this year, if it’s not Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre, make sure it’s the RSC’s Macbeth.”*

 Photo posted to Instagram (@jayzaff) and Twitter (@TheAuthorIsDead).

Photo posted to Instagram (@jayzaff) and Twitter (@TheAuthorIsDead).