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Time is of the essence for Macbeth

Macbeth, RSC Stratford, to September 18.

Time’s the thing in the new production of Macbeth at the RSC, directed by Polly Findlay: A large digital clock starts counting down from the moment Duncan is murdered. When it reaches zero, we conclude, Macbeth will die. Something unstoppable has been set in motion, and not even interval drinks are going to slow it down (when they say the performance will begin in two minutes, they mean it).

NOW and LATER also appear on screens, as do phrases uttered by characters. These phrases linger and are displayed in capitals because they are SIGNIFICANT. This is meant to give coherence to a particular reading of the play - however, a price is to be paid for this, as, to me, it had a gimmicky feel. It also contributed to the creation of dramatic pace which had very little let-up.

Ideas arrive fully formed on actors’ lips in this play, and the performers need to find ways to suggest that some reflection is actually taking place. There was little of that dynamic though, especially in the case of Christopher Eccleston in the lead, as too much was declamatory, with insufficient light and shade. In other respects, he’s a refreshing Macbeth. "Let Eccleston be Eccleston" seems to be the guiding principle, and you can relish his flat northern vowels and macho swagger, and believe in him as a soldier beloved by other soldiers. If only his wasn’t the only voice like that: The received pronunciation of the other thanes distance him from them from the outset. So we have a proletarian Macbeth who just happens to live in a castle, surrounded by rather effete southerners, who wear evening dress much more comfortably than he does.

Niamh Cusack provides a good foil for Eccleston as Lady Macbeth, pushy yet needy, at times brittle and neurotic, burdened by a rather dim-witted husband. Odd things are done elsewhere with casting and characters. Macduff seems the sort of businessman who loves lunch and hates the gym. You wonder how he will overcome Macbeth in combat - he does, of course, but in a deceitful and cowardly way which immediately undercuts his heroic status. The porter is dry and laconic, an interesting and engaging performance. But when he doubles-up as other minor characters, such as the third murderer in the assassination of Banquo, problems ensue - he still maintains a cynical comic edge, eating sweets from a bag while waiting for the victim to arrive, and investing a brutal scene with misplaced mirth. But the witches are the modern problem with Macbeth. The focus on time sidesteps the fact that this play is driven by supernatural concerns, real to Shakespeare’s audience, for whom Evil existed, in and of the world. The witches, the blasted heath and the tumultuous weather, embody that evil, but none of these features in this production, presumably because sophisticated modern audiences won’t buy it, nor accept the portrayal of women in that way.

But Shakespeare also knew that his opening scene needed dramatic heft, and it’s unimaginable to think that the opening of Hamlet, say, would be as gutted of its supernatural references as this production of Macbeth is.

Instead of witches, yet purporting to represent the supernatural, we get little girls in pink onesies each holding a doll. The dialogue that establishes them as "weird sisters" is all gone except for the bits we all can recite, sometimes distorted electronically to make the children sound other-worldly. There is not even a hint of menace.

For tickets go to

Picture of Christopher Eccleston and Niamh Cusack in Macbeth, by Richard Davenport (c) RSC

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