The vast cavernous main house stage at Stratford-upon-Avon is a sea of blackness for this particularly dark production of Shakespeare's Macbeth. Set in a mock Edwardian era of long flowing dresses, military trenchcoats and floor length minks, this northern setting is as much Slavic as Scottish. Four ominous holes on either side of the proscenium gape like morality play entries to hell. A metal grid pivots open for the entrance of the witches. The backstage wall hinges sideways to form a vast angled screen reflecting gigantic shadows of first the doomed King Duncan, then the equally doomed King Macbeth, Duncan 's bloodied murderer.
Dominic Cooke's production of Macbeth has pace and style, two necessary ingredients for a production that runs for over two hours without an interval. Cooke is famous for his cutting of plays; his irreverence towards the Bard is refreshing and enlightening. The helter skelter romp to Macbeth's tragic conclusioon is handled with an effective disregard for the miriad of episodic vignettes that traditionally announces the end of this infamously difficult play.
The coachloads of schoolchildren, even on this opening night, point to the popularity of this play, particularly to syllabus setting exam boards throughout the country. I'm sure everyone who reads this review knows the plot. The murder of one king by his military champion, his pushy wife who goes mad, and the banquet scene where a bloody ghost sits among unsuspecting guests, only visible to the guilt tormented soul of Macbeth.
Of course, revisionist historians, especially those from Scotland , stress what a historical confection Shakespeare made of this particularly gory story. Macbeth wasn't all that bad after all. He just belonged to the wrong dynasty at the wrong time. Shakespeare needed to flatter the regal pretensions of his new king, James VI and I. James Stuart's line stemmed from Banquo, and no better way to promote a little political image-making than to write a story that catered to the king's ancestral view of himself, and attacked the arch-enemy of this fundamentalist monarch who brought fear of the witch and hatred of witchcraft down to London with his accession.
The witches in this production are certainly not the bearded hags we are led to expect. Very sensual creatures, wood nymphs with echoing voices, seduce the wary Macbeth with their prognostications. Of course, Banquo overhears what the witches foretell, not knowing his own life is threatened by Macbeth's interpretation of the future. Although cruelly attacked and murdered, Banquo's son, Fleance, escapes, and so the royal line begins stretching forward through time to James himself.
Banquo, played with strength and integrity by Louis Hilyer, is a diminutive tower of strength. Hilyer embraces the role and gives a completely convincing performance as the battle trained confederate whose future belies his humble present. The scene where Banquo's ghost confronts his murderer at the feast is the finest example I have ever seen of this difficult and potentially farcical moment. This was gripping and exciting stuff that would have been quite at home in any recent horror movie.
Of course, Banquo is not the first to die literally at Macbeth's hands. Richard Cordery is regal as King Duncan, the benign ruler who opens the way for his usurper by sending the gallant Macbeth into battle to suppress a rebellion. Duncan pays the ultimate price for advancing this particular general.
Macbeth is goaded into this deed by his wife, Lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth, played with great force and energy by Sian Thomas, forces her husband, when his resolve is waning, to do the deed. Thomas's strength as an actor transfers to this Lady who would consider beating the brains of her own suckling child rather than quit their vile and murderous plan. When Lady Macbeth goes mad and eventually kills herself with an off-stage scream, there is no pity, no remorse, from her husband or from us. An arch-villainess, Thomas rises to this role with strength and passion.
Nobody at the court of Macbeth can escape the terrible course of events, especially not Duncan 's faithful follower, Macduff. Clive Wood gives a studied and honest performance as this honourable man amongst fiends. The impeccably timed reaction to news of the murder of his wife and young children was superbly and movingly portrayed by Wood. His collapse at the news was painfully real, his hatred tangible.
Macduff's family, with Ruth Gemmell as his Lady Macduff, Callum Finlay as Young Macduff, and the delightful Grace Griffiths as Macduff's Daughter, added a touch of humanity to this dark tale. Finlay's delivery of the banter with his mother was impeccable. The clarity of his emotion and expression belied his years. Likewise the very young Griffiths was immersed in her character, so much so, that the children's brutal onstage murder was shockingly, numbingly realistic. In an age when our children appear ever more vulnerable, this representation of child murder brought home the unbelievable nature of this crime.
However, it all comes down to the evil machinations of Macbeth. Greg Hicks gives a measured performance as the Scottish king who lives his immoral life in emulation of that which the witches foretell. At times Hicks seems too detached, too vulnerable to commit such wicked deeds. This Macbeth needs his wife so much, we imagine the state would crumble through inaction without her. At times deeply insightful, at others too naturalistic for this heightened tragic drama, Hicks may not excite the passions but he holds together a difficult play. Not so much Saddam Hussein, more Tony Blair, this particular Macbeth seems too laid back to be a real threat to the English army that uproots Burnham Wood and comes to Dunsinane.
The RSC have chosen a season of the great tragedies. This first offering is a brave attempt to breathe new life into an old war-horse. On many levels it succeeds. It is likely to be a fascinating season ahead, and one which will highlight the enormous variety in the plays we gather together under the title tragedy.
Kevin Quarmby © 2004