To be perfectly honest, a few years ago I decided that Iâ€™d seen enough productions of Macbeth to last me for my lifetime, but because we only moved to Stratford eighteen months ago we thought we would go and see the RSCâ€™s Macbeth as itâ€™s part of the new season.
Itâ€™s certainly interesting. I wouldnâ€™t recommend it to someone who doesnâ€™t know Shakespeareâ€™s play because if you donâ€™t know the play there are several things which will confuse you mightily. For starters there arenâ€™t any witches. There are three children instead and the word â€˜witchesâ€™ that Shakespeare wrote comes out as â€˜childrenâ€™. Thereâ€™s no â€˜bubble, bubble, toil and troubleâ€™ and no sailorâ€™s wife with chestnuts in her lap. No one went to Aleppo. The child actors playing the â€˜childrenâ€™ turn up later playing Lady Macduffâ€™s children. At the end one of them is dressed up as one of the non-witch children but the other two arenâ€™t. I tried and tried for an idea, but I couldnâ€™t find one. Maybe Iâ€™m dim.
The interval is placed in the middle of the Banquoâ€™s ghost banquet scene (though without any sign of a banquet and without any sitting down). Banquo is already dead but he comes in and kills Macbeth. Then itâ€™s time for a gin and tonic. After the drink (perhaps the best metaphor of the evening) the scene is replayed without Banquo but with Macbeth doing his writhing in the same way. Even the dim in the audience can work out that Macbeth is now mad. He canâ€™t tell the difference between his guilty imaginings (perhaps his thoughts which are â€˜but fantasticalâ€™) and the pretend reality which Shakespeare asks us to believe in his play. It is established at this point that Macbeth is â€˜madâ€™ (whatever that means in psychological terms). And he remains mad for the rest of the play. He is haunted by those he has killed. We know this because the dead people keep coming on stage. Itâ€™s a sort of idea, I suppose. The trouble is that Lady Macbethâ€™s madness is relegated to mere plot.
Jonathan Slinger did his best with Macbeth, I thought. He spent quite a lot of time in Act V on a ladder. The director wanted us to see Macbeth as isolated and alone and so he was isolated and alone a lot of time time. Up a ladder. The battle was, presumably, in his head because there wasnâ€™t any military battle. I was struck by the decision to have the branches of Birnham Wood carried by Lady Macduff (why?) and the children/â€childrenâ€ [?]: a sort of semi-repeated idea which by now for me had become reductive.
I have always found Act IV scene iii very boring. Iâ€™m afraid I thought that this Malcolm was dreadful. I couldnâ€™t make out some of what he said and even when I knew the speeches (Iâ€™ve taught Macbeth about 15 times) I couldnâ€™t make head or tail of what he was saying and cared even less. Macduff was well played though, with some emotion and subtlety,Â and that prevented me from walking out.
What in Cardenio had been a very well handled, and often surprisingly dramatic, technique of pausing before the crucial word became a meaningless and idiotic mannerism in this production. It sounded as if the actors had been told to do it without thinking about why. It sometimes garbled the verse and led to unintelligibility. I very much hope this new and very obvious vocal technique isnâ€™t going to be a new RSC trademark.
I didnâ€™t like this production. But itâ€™s certainly got some ideas and itâ€™s trying to do something. It also makes you read the text again. But I thought the main ideas were imposed on the text rather than arising from it: a startling contrast to A Merchant of Venice where the ideas come directly from the text.
But that doesnâ€™t mean you shouldnâ€™t see it. It makes you think about what Shakespeare wrote again. And itâ€™s well enough carried out to do that.