Were you still up for Macbeth?


I’ve always thought of Macbeth as being the politician’s play.

“I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent. Only a vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself and falls upon th’other.”

Bullingdon Club anyone?

I learned that quote in the third year at school. Given that both the RSC and National Theatre have it performed this season I’m assuming it is part of the GCSE syllabus this year. Got to fill the matinee seats somehow.

The theme that the RSC version at the Barbican wants to draw out is time. And to make sure we don’t miss the point they are trying to make, there’s a bloody big clock counting down the two hours between Duncan’s death and the exit of Macbeth from the throne. In a less clunky touch, once Malcolm became king the clock re-set itself. Apparently an early version of this staging also had key quotes about time projected onto the screen above the stage as they were delivered. Just to make those GCSE papers even more uniform I suppose. If the director were truly to embrace the politicians idea then maybe the clock could have been set to five years.

The other regularly quoted theme for the play is children. The Macbeths have none surviving and so they know their shift on the throne is all that their family will have. They spend much of their limited time and effort trying to off Malcolm, Macduff-lets and various other threats rather than on the principle idea of governing. Seeking a second term on the basis of no viable alternative is not a winning strategy, as they find out.

The children theme is taken in an interesting way here as the three witches are primary school poppets in red dresses and white socks. They chant in unison and move in a slightly creepy Shining-esque manner. They are also employed as scene shifters, which means they are a continuous flitting presence across the stage.

Less successful is the idea of Macbeth as horror. Ghosts and prophesies are good opportunities for this, but Banquo’s ghost was not very scary – the steward’s ghost far more un-nerving as the denouement approached. Which meant that Christopher Ecclestone’s rolling around on the floor seemed a bit over the top in the circumstances. Perhaps we would have believed it more if Banquo had been a reporter from the Telegraph enquiring about Macbeth MP’s expenses?

Ecclestone is, let’s face it, most known now for his turn as Doctor Who. Strange then that this role doesn’t make it into his biography in the programme. Presumably not enough room and something had to go. He is a fine actor in general and takes on Macbeth as a bluff northerner, more used to the battlefield than Question Time. That’s great, but Coriolanus is also written for that interpretation and fits more naturally. So we don’t get the sense of ambition, the sense of entitlement that Macbeth should have. It doesn’t come naturally to Ecclestone’s character and Niamh Cusack’s Lady Macbeth doesn’t manage to imbue it in him. Which is a shame, because Cusack is great in her Glamis scenes early on. Sadly the pared down script loses some of the subtleties (perhaps in an effort to speed the whole performance up and keep the idea of time foremost). And so the idea behind ‘out damn spot’ is completely lost. Not least that she makes the speech standing next to an office water cooler.

And so, in ‘hamburger’ fashion, I’ll end with a couple more good thoughts.

A constant presence is the Porter who chalks up the death count on the walls of the stage. It is Barbican. It is a big stage. Seeing the play through his eyes was an interesting idea and director Polly Findlay has added a lot of unspoken stuff for him, including pushing a carpet cleaner around in an unconvincing effort to clear up the blood. But we laughed once too often at his asides when he was directing Macduff to Macbeth’s location before the final battle. That’s sort of meant to be the dramatic conclusion, but we lost it with a laugh.

Which is a shame because Macduff was also a good thing. Portrayed by Edward Bennett as a bank manager type in a cardigan, his gradual understanding of the deaths of his family – “ALL my pretty ones…?” was understated and perfect. The final fight, between Macbeth and his bank manager should only have gone one way, of course. But, Ecclestone gives himself up, Obi Wan Kenobi-style, when the clock reaches zero. Perhaps Macduff is actually the Returning Officer?