Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Monday 18th July, 2011
The set for this production – one of the first to be staged in the revamped and rebuilt Royal Shakespeare Theatre – is basically the interior of a ruined church. Smashed stained glass windows and beheaded statues stand as sentinels for the action on the dark parquet flooring below. A pile of rubble, broken chairs and statues clutters the upstage area. This is, of course, in keeping with the desecration theme of the play: when Duncan’s murdered body is found, he is likened to a ransacked temple, the incarnation of the natural, and holy, order. Someone has ‘stole thence the life o’ th’ building’.
The regicide causes great perturbation in nature. The unnatural (and God-given) order has been defiled. Even the horses are eating each other. The evil must be purged so that order – symbolised by brand spanking new stained glass windows – can be restored.
The production has many nifty ideas. The witches have been swapped for a trio of undead children, whose entrance to the play is one of the most chilling I have ever seen. The famous opening scene is dispensed with. Instead, a concussed Malcolm becomes the ‘bloody man’ who acts as war correspondent, and is prompted to begin speaking by Ross, in priestly garb. This device closes the play, with Ross again prompting new king Malcolm to deliver the final speech. In this way, Ross can be seen to operate as a counterpart for Seyton (who is also given the Porter’s gates of hell speech). Seyton, in dark red leather, oversees the action but only after the first murder has been committed. By killing the king, Macbeth has unleashed Evil upon the world – well, upon Scotland, at least.
The slaughter of Lady Macduff and her ‘pretty chickens’ is truly horrific. She has to watch as one child is stabbed, another has his neck broken – the girl is led off hand in hand with her assailant for some unseen, unspeakable atrocity.
Once dead, characters are ushered through a door upstage centre by Seyton himself. This is not the primrose way! But it is a good method of clearing the stage of corpses.
Rather than witches, it is ghosts who loom large, influencing the action. Macduff followed around by his dead wife and kids is particularly effective. Dolls figure heavily, representing childhood and also puppetry, in a Voodoo kind of way. Macbeth, scorning the predictions, seizes one of the dollies and repeatedly thwacks its face off the floor, echoing his wife’s earlier claim to “dash a child’s brains out.” This, and some other bits of business, gave rise to laughter from the audience. Jonathan Slinger’s worthy Thane brings to light some of the black humour of the later scenes but I’m not confident all the laughs were earned intentionally.
What irked me and alienated me from the central performance was his propensity for emitting great sprays of saliva with every other word. I know proper voice projection inevitably creates this side effect but Mr Slinger seems to me a veritable fountain of a man. I recall with a shudder getting drenched at his Richard III, when I was on the second row. All of this kept me at a dry distance from his performance – a pity when so many of the supporting players were so strong.
Ah well, spit happens.