'Macbeth': Theater Review

Courtesy of Richard Davenport/RSC
Christopher Eccleston in 'Macbeth'
Spellbinding lead performances, but not enough black magic.
9/18/2018

Former 'Doctor Who' star Christopher Eccleston makes his Royal Shakespeare Company debut as a muscular Macbeth in Polly Findlay’s fast-paced production.

Full of sound and fury, Christopher Eccleston’s debut engagement with the Royal Shakespeare Company is a powerhouse performance, but also something of a one-man show. The former Doctor Who star invests this prestigious career milestone with so much musclebound, adrenalized energy that the rest of Polly Findlay’s fast-paced production of Macbeth feels a little flat by comparison.

By fateful coincidence, Findlay’s production coincides with the Rufus Norris-directed staging of the Shakespeare tragedy starring Rory Kinnear, currently playing at London's National Theatre. While both productions have earned mixed notices, the RSC version has been more warmly received. In any case, Eccleston’s critic-proof charisma and all-ages fan base have already helped sell out virtually every seat in this meaty six-month Stratford run, which transfers to London’s Barbican Theatre for a further three months from mid-October. A live cinema version will also screen across the U.K. next week, with selected U.S. screenings to follow in May.

The RSC program notes make the case for "The Scottish Play" being a prototype horror movie, a juicy conceit which Findlay reinforces with some smart visual and casting choices. The most impressive is the trio of witches whose willfully cryptic predictions trick Macbeth into launching his murderous power grab against King Duncan (David Acton). The weird sisters are played here by three creepy-cute young girls in matching red pajama suits, their synchronized movements and uncanny chants invoking spooky screen classics like The Omen and The Shining. Clever, chilling stuff. But sadly, Findlay underplays the psycho-horror potential of later nightmarish scenes including the ghostly return of the slain Banquo (Raphael Sowole) and the sleepwalking madness of Lady Macbeth (Niamh Cusack).

Eccleston suggested in a recent interview that Macbeth is rooted in male insecurity about masculinity. That element is certainly present in his kinetic, gruff, brawny performance. Sporting a military buzzcut and jutting beard, he plays Macbeth as a man of action, a barely domesticated warrior plainly more comfortable in body armor than the ceremonial robes of power. With his pumped-up torso, Eccleston exudes more brute physicality than usual here, like a retired boxing champ eager to prove he can still crush any young challenger. At one point he even kneels down and head-butts the stage. There are vague echoes of Putin’s virile strongman posturing here, but nothing overt.

The 54-year-old Eccleston delivers Macbeth’s lines in a similarly brusque manner, punchy and percussive, low on nuance but full of flinty force. Adherence to formal rhythmic meter is mostly sacrificed to naturalism in his contemporary, accessible interpretation. Eccleston also uses his native Salford accent, lending a teasing hint of working-class resentment to Macbeth’s regicidal rampage, at least to British ears. But Findlay leaves this social-realist subtext unexplored. A Marxist Macbeth would perhaps be an allegorical stretch too far.

Also using her native Irish accent, Cusack invests Lady Macbeth with a similarly athletic energy, slinking and twirling around the stage as she schemes to unlock her husband’s latent capacity for mass murder. Presenting Cusack in a range of fabulous frocks, Findlay and designer Fly Davis accentuate the character’s dangerously feminine glamour over her pointedly desexualized cruelty, diminishing some of her dramatic import in the process. Shakespeare’s wily conception of Lady Macbeth as initially more ruthlessly pragmatic, the real power behind her husband’s game of thrones, is largely obliterated by Eccleston’s bullish performance. Hence when his bloodlust later eclipses and excludes hers, the unraveling effect on her fragile psyche lacks emotional bite.

This production’s biggest weakness is its supporting cast, most of whom register like walking shadows opposite the high-voltage Eccleston and the seductively evil Cusack. The characterization of Macduff (Edward Bennett) and Malcolm (Luke Newberry) as timid junior-management types feels especially weak, given that they are the crucial challengers who will eventually topple Macbeth by force. The elevation of the minor porter character (Michael Hodgson) into a vaguely sinister, Pinter-esque janitor who remains onstage throughout is an agreeably eccentric subplot, albeit hazy in intent.

In technical terms, this mostly low-frills production includes a few quixotic flourishes, some effective, others gimmicky. The spare score, by Rupert Cross, amplifies the horror with thunderous crashes and nerve-jangling string crescendos. Low-level clouds of chemical fog and plumes of sparkly dust fill the performance space during supernatural interludes. A digital clock behind the stage counts down the two hours from the first spark of Macbeth’s mutinous plan to his blood-spurting demise, creating a sense of urgency but little else.

Throughout the play, key lines of dialogue are projected above the stage as billboard-sized slogans. The effect borders on overkill, but may prove educationally useful for younger viewers who only came to see the former Doctor Who star strut and fret his two hours upon the stage. Findlay also deserves credit for adding an irreverent final twist to Shakespeare’s text, bringing the witches back onstage to hint ominously that the cycle of violence is not over yet. A cheeky coda, but perfect for a horror movie franchise. Four centuries in the making, Macbeth 2: The Revenge sounds like an enticing prospect.

Venue: Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon
Cast: Christopher Eccleston, Niamh Cusack, Raphael Sowole, Michael Hodgson, David Acton, Edward Bennett, Luke Newberry, Mariam Haque, Donna Banya, Tim Samuels
Director: Polly Findlay
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Set and costume designer: Fly Davis
Lighting designer: Lizzie Powell
Music: Rupert Cross
Sound designer: Christopher Shutt
Fight director: Kate Waters
Presented by Royal Shakespeare Company