Review: Macbeth, RSC at the Barbican

Despite a cast including Christopher Eccleston and Niamh Cusack, this proves another disappointment of a Macbeth as the RSC start their Autumn residency at the Barbican

“Better health attend his majesty”

Its enduring popularity on school curricula means we will probably never be free of it but in a year when both the National Theatre and the RSC have swung and missed with modern takes on Macbeth, surely it is time to give it a rest. Rufus Norris’s post-apocalyptic production felt unmoored and lacklustre in the unforgiving Olivier and now taking up residency at the Barbican, Polly Findlay’s interpretation for the RSC similarly lacks clarity and intent.

There’s plenty of ambition here and it is tempting to see the influence of a certain Dutch auteur (barefeet actors, clocks counting down to deaths…). But the over-riding aspect of Findlay’s direction is its headlong speed as it hurtles through a cut-down version of the text. Too much has been sacrificed here in the name of accessibility with precious little time given to allow emotional beats to play out, for motivations to be understood, the hurly-burly rules.

Christopher Eccleston feels ill at ease as Macbeth, a convincingly rough-hewn soldier but unable to breathe any poetry into his verse reading. And much as I love Niamh Cusack, her Lady Macbeth is ill-served here by the relentless of a pace that constantly feels like it is trying to hurry her off. What does work in an intriguing way is the forefronting of Michael Hodgson’s Porter, a constant foreboding presence, chalking up deaths, running the vacuum up and down, even lending a murderous hand.

And there’s all sorts of similar details that tease with the promise of what might have been. The way in which children are used to amp up the spookiness – the witches as little girls nods neatly to The Shining and the final image of the bloody cycle restarting is powerfully done. Lizzie Powell’s lighting carving epic tableaux out of the liminal space of Fly Davis’ design. And the clanking horror movie-stylings of Christopher Shutt’s sound and Rupert Cross’ music may ultimately prove overused but are still effective.

It all adds up to little in the end though, another Macbeth that can’t quite justify its place on the stage, nor reveal anything new in the telling. When shall we three meet again? Hopefully not too soon at all.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Photos: The Other Richard
Macbeth by the RSC is booking at the Barbican until 18th January

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