at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Wednesday 20th April 2011
The performance reviewed was a preview performance. Press night is Tuesday 26th April. A fire alarm stopped the performance for a short while, twenty minutes before the interval.
The Royal Shakespeare Company seem to be a little obsessed with religion at the moment. Rupert Goold’s Romeo and Juliet picked up on Christian imagery in the play, and Greg Doran’s new production of Cardenio is laden with monastic music. Michael Boyd’s visually stunning and aurally impressive production of Macbeth, the first production in the new RST, which bases most of its iconography around Christianity, has some ideas which come close to genius, but feels, conceptually, like its doing too much.
It is easy to blame the witches for the Macbeth’s actions. Boyd, however, has chosen to strip away the magic, instead focussing on the ghosts in the play, who follow their killer around. The religious imagery is most evident in the role of Seyton (Jamie Beamish), who here acts as the devil and takes the Porter’s lines, offering hints to the IRA during his opening speech. The warring factions are suggestive of opposing factions of Christianity, although the reasoning behind this is never made clear.
Jonathan Slinger’s Macbeth is a man in isolation, with only ghosts for company. His “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” speech, delivered atop a ladder, typifies this; he is not a tyrant but a man whose actions have removed him from society. Initially weak-willed, Slinger’s actions seem to strengthen him, until he becomes unaware of his own loneliness. He is supported by Aislín McGuckin’s astonishing Lady Macbeth, who only nudges her husband along rather than forcing him to murder Duncan. Scott Handy’s Ross acts as puppeteer to Howard Charles’ uneasy Malcolm, and Steve Toussaint is truly disturbing as Banquo’s towering ghost.
Boyd’s direction, however, sometimes tries too hard to do too much. Some extraordinary moments (Ross directing Malcolm what to say) and ideas (black and white costumes) are overshadowed by the bigger concept, and we are never given time to consider them fully. It’s also clear that some actors will take time to get used to the thrust stage, and the Malcolm/Macduff scene in Act IV needs to pick up pace if it is to have any impact, but these issues will no doubt be taken care of during the preview period.
The designers clearly have a field day in their new toy box at the RST. Tom Piper’s church hall set slowly turns into an asylum in the second act, and characters enter swiftly from below and above the stage. It shows the potential this new theatre has, and its ability to represent the epic nature of Shakespeare’s plays while retaining emotion. Jean Kalman’s evocative lighting mixes old with new, and Craig Armstrong’s haunting cello music is one of the best aspects of this production.
For all its faults, this is a bold and impressive production to christen the RSC’s new home. Boyd’s accomplished direction shows Macbeth to be a play about the arbitrary nature of whose side you end up on, and creates some images which will remain etched in the memory for a long time to come. We welcome a strong ensemble who will no doubt continue to impress over the coming months, and we start to get a glimpse of what this amazing space can do. The RSC is well and truly back in business.