Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Tuesday 3rd April, 2018
Polly Findlay’s production frames the action in a nondescript hotel or conference centre setting. An expanse of blue carpet fills the stage, bordered by a walkway. A water cooler gurgles upstage. The sparse furniture smacks of corporate hospitality. Fly Davis’s design certainly accommodates the banality of evil – Dunsinane as a low-budget chain hotel. Findlay heightens the horror film aspects of Shakespeare’s tragedy: the witches are little girls in pink pyjamas, cradling dolls in their arms, their spells are singsong, like playground rhymes. “Double double, toil and trouble” could quite easily be, “One, two, Freddie’s coming for you.” Eerie though these kids are, they’ve got nothing on the Porter, the always-present Michael Hodgson, idly pushing a carpet sweeper. He is more of an unsettling presence than comic relief, although he does get a few laughs.
David Acton is an excellent Duncan, whose throne is a wheelchair, signifying his physical vulnerability – with his murder (oops, spoiler!) the production loses one of its best actors. Also strong is Raphael Sowole as Banquo, thoroughly credible and handling the blank verse with a natural feel.
Why then, with its jump scares, sudden loud noises and plunges into darkness, its scary movie sound effects and atmospheric underscore, does this production not grip me?
For once, the fault is in our stars. Making his RSC debut in the title role is one of television’s most proficient actors, the ninth Doctor himself, Christopher Eccleston, no less. Will he be able to bring his intensity, his charisma, his sensitivity to the stage? Short answer: no. Eccleston’s performance is highly mannered, coming across as though he’s learned the dynamics along with the lines: Say this word loud, Chris, speed this bit up… The result is it doesn’t sound as if he believes what he says and so we are not convinced. Faring somewhat better is Niamh Cusack as his Mrs, but we don’t get the sense of her decline, we don’t get the sense that she is ever in control – she’s too neurotic from the off – and yet, when it comes to the sleepwalking scene, we don’t get the sense that she has lost it.
There are moments when the setting works brilliantly – an upper level serves as banqueting table, allowing for a kind of split-screen effect. There are moments when it doesn’t: the pivotal scene between Malcolm (Luke Newberry) and Macduff (a becardiganed Edward Bennett) is like the Head Boy having a one-to-one with the Head of Year in his office. And there are times when Findlay doesn’t push the horror (or the suggestion of horror) quite far enough. The slaughter of Macduff’s family pulls its punches, and we don’t get to behold the tyrant’s severed head.
A timer ticks away the length of Macbeth’s reign and there is the implication that events will repeat themselves once young Fleance gets to work – along with the three creepy girls, of course.
This is a production with lots of ideas tossed into the cauldron and, while some of it works like a charm, the overall effect falls short of spellbinding.