By Shiroma Silva
Theatre review: ‘Macbeth’ by the Royal Shakespeare Company
“Fair is foul and foul is fair: hover through the fog and filthy air” – ominous utterances usually spat out through the mouths of evil women instead emerge from the lips of babes. Because in Michael Boyd’s new production of the doomed play, the vile trio is not played by the conventional witches, but by angelic looking Victorian chimney sweep children who descend onto stage on harnesses to deliver their eerie message. It’s all part of Boyd’s brave staging in the first production on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s newly transformed stage in Stratford-upon-Avon, where an original use of set and three-dimensional space breathes life into a well-worn play, adding an intrigue to this sombre affair that keeps the audience onside.
All the corners of the new RSC’s thrust stage were thoroughly utilised to bring on the soldiers in the ensuing battles, giving a sense of the threats to the nation state that were to come and of a land about to be under siege. More symbolism follows upstage where a door leading to a chamber at the back of the arena effectively serves as a “death door”. It’s through this that King Duncan passed and slept his last night as the guest of Macbeth, before his bloody murder. It was also through this that Lady Macduff and children went in for safe refuge. When they re-emerged through it the next day, they did so to face death at the hands of Macbeth’s lynch mob. Three cellists sitting above the death door played mournful, eerie music, almost serenading the unsuspecting victims through the gates of hell. The set largely consisted of derelict buildings, signalling the state of the nation over which Macbeth now ruled. It could be said to be akin to the deep rooted rot in our current society where the power elite have lost the trust of the masses and chaos ensues as civil disobedience breaks out.
In this production, use of hoists from which characters are lowered, sometimes right down onto the stage floor, and at other times suspended in air to watch what’s happening on the earth below depicts where they sit mentally, and is almost religious in undertones. Ghosts of the murdered- Macduff’s wife and children, Banquo and his son – revisit those left still trying to survive in a decaying place. Being hoisted in the air also shows the psychological state of Macbeth and his wife, representing the displacement of their minds. This is especially true in the banquet celebrating Macbeth’s newfound position. What should have been a celebration is clearly far from it. What must everyone else around them think? Their thoughts rage in paranoid confusion. In the suspended states, the guilty duo are mere spectators at their own party. They float ethereally above, watching but not engaging with the events taking place below, isolated and disconnected from the whole process. The guests too are both literally and metaphorically on another plane, also simply going through the motions. The underlying implication is that everyone secretly knows, or at the very least suspects, what has really happened.
So in his direction, Michael Boyd almost conjures up a sympathy for the Macbeths, not just because of how they suffer under the weight of their own neurosis, but also since having sold their souls to achieve their ambitions, they are no longer really in control of themselves or enjoying the power they wanted so badly.
Macbeth is driven to the brink of madness, and in this production, he and his wife are depicted as ultimately very human – a couple put into their position by fate. Victims of their own ambitions, they play with their own destinies, attempting to deceive themselves by trying to live with what they have done. They cannot go back, but are forced to commit more evil to fulfil their destiny. Jonathan Slinger pulls this double-edged aspect of Macbeth’s character off very well. What is less convincing is that he is a brave solider who has just won a great victory for his King because he’s both psychologically and physically not substantial enough. The gallant warrior is much better depicted by the excellent performance of Steve Toussaint as Banquo, a strong, affirmative and likeable soldier who has the presence to wear the decorations he’s won in battle with dignity. Whilst this is not in any way a light production (and in fact, the only lighter moments come from Seyton, played as an Irish drunkard messing around with fireworks), the characterisation is not so much in-depth but broad and contextual. The sense in this production, even with the wicked murder of Duncan, is that Macbeth’s early temptation and subsequent descent into hell is something we could all, in the right circumstances, be guilty of.
Lady Macbeth, played by Aislin Mcguckin, is a beautiful woman clad in alluringly curvaceous Tudor costume, whose sexual chemistry with her husband is very real. Rather than portraying her as evil incarnate, Michael Boyd places her more as someone swept along with the tide of fate. She and her husband are as guilty as each other from the start, and the detached aspects of the staging conveys the idea that rather than being the instigators of wrong doing, they were almost under a spell and victims of their own karma; two relatively everyday people for whom the die is already cast. It’s altogether a very watchable production. Rather than being an in-depth soul searching interpretation with strong distinctions between right and wrong and between good and evil (as might have been more common with past productions), Boyd’s take is much more modern and one where people and their actions are on a relative, sliding scale.
Macbeth continues to play at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 6 Oct 2011.
Photo Credits: Ellie Kurttz / RSC
Reclaim Your Stage:
The Platform is a groundbreaking blog that provides current affairs and cultural commentary. Our pieces offer challenging opinions from a range of spectrums; that’s why we love hosting a platform for them.