Macbeth with Christopher Eccleston
I had such high hopes.
A rebooted, modernised and pared down punchy version that clocks in at 2 hours 33 (including interval) that even has a huge bright red digital clock counting down the action? The muscular presence of Eccleston and the divine Niamh Cusack freshly honed from a full run at Stratford? Striking staging, inventive recasting of the witches and cinematic sound effects?
It all sounded marvellous but instead became a weirdly fast yet weary and dispiriting trudge that reduced a great drama to a muddled mess. As the Barbican’s wonderful bronzed fire guards separated to reveal a brutally bare stage with old king Duncan in a hospital bed, it seemed we were in for a striking treat to blow away the cobwebs and painful memories of schooldays Shakespeare.
However, brevity does not equal clarity and speed does not guarantee engagement or impact.
It must have seemed such a strong concept to cut away almost everything surrounding the terrible two, leaving the Macbeths to shine in all their madness and misdeeds.
Unfortunately, the pared-down script has excised so much plot and character detail that I frequently had no idea who most of the supporting cast were and what on earth they were up to.
Even worse, Eccleston, making his RSC debut, appeared inexplicably uncomfortable on stage, strangely stilted and almost hammy in exaggerated gestures and ticks. He even stumbled on the low raised platform surrounding the main stage.
Perhaps it was a conscious choice to erase the poetry and rhythms of the extraordinary language but it left lines swallowed or unclear, and ultimately without clear purpose or impact. His braggardly swaggering had moments but increasingly reminded me of Noel (or is it Liam?) Gallagher. His descent into tortured self-doubt and despair was unconvincing. His death, to be frank, was a relief.
Macbeth with Christopher Eccleston and Niamh Cusack
Macbeth with Christopher Eccleston and Raphael Sowole as Banquo
Although Ecceston was the most glaring example, at almost no point in the play did a single classic line soar. Even the “out damned spot” was tossed aside in a rushed water cooler moment.
Perhaps that clock ticking down to Macbeth’s doom made such experienced actors a little off balance, but nothing had a chance to breathe, no opportunity for the audience to savour a moment. For such a seasoned production it was also notable when props were dropped and rushed lines fluffed.
The ill-conceived staging left some lines spoken with backs to a struggling audience. It was bad enough being frequently unsure who was saying what, but even worse when you can’t hear what they are saying.
The frantic plot meant I had absolutely no real idea why the king’s son and daughter (a gender flipped Donalbain) would flee when the path to throne opened up at his murder. Lady Macbeth (a valiant and impressive Cusack) was suddenly dead with no time for the audience to register the huge moment, and no discernable reaction from her husband.
Lords, soldiers and flunkies dashed on and off (everyone was always dashing somewhere as that clock kept ticking) leaving me rarely any the wiser about what they were doing or why. I studied this particular play and Edward Bond’s searing 1971 version across six months at A-Level and I was still frequently nonplussed.
This is a towering work which rushes inexorably towards its dread-filled ending, spiralling into the disturbing, darkest places lurking inside all of us. On stage, it should build almost unbearably to the final moral reckoning.
Instead, when Macduff (reduced to a strangely emasculated beaurocrat) rushes on at the end to avenge his murdered family, he charges the wrong way. The Porter (a beefed up creepy Bates Motel commentator keeping the death tally on a blackboard) coughs and jokingly hooks his thumb in the other direction. The audience sniggers. Any drama is lost.
With the clock ticking down the last seconds overhead, the great warrior Macbeth tosses around his laughably ineffective adversary before, again inexplicably, throwing open his arms and allowing himself to be beheaded. He flings himself to the ground just in time for the display to strike zero. I was left cold. The man in the row in front of me laughed.
Macbeth with Christopher Eccleston and Niamh Cusack
Frustratingly, there were glimpses of what have been.
The reinvention of the witches as three creepy pigtailed schoolgirls in red dresses sing-songing those famous prophecies had echoes of the Shining twins and other horror tropes. It was a bold and bracing choice that served the classic text as well as reinventing it for a modern audience.
Lady Macduff and her young son generated one of the few truly chilling and upsetting moments of the night as they were dragged away to their deaths.
The screeching horror-movie strings and booming clangs were effective, if overused, and moments like the Macbeths’ coronation provided striking tableaux.
Ultimately, though, this just doesn’t work or something was knocked off balance during the transfer from Stratford. For me, at least, it is a damned spot on the RSC’s gilded reputation.
MACBETH AT THE BARBICAN UNTIL JANURAY 18: FOR TICKETS AND INFO GO TO www.rsc.org.uk/whats-on/