While many will be drawn to the RSC’s latest revival of the classic Shakespeare play by Christopher Eccleston, this adaptation has some unexpected wickedness to offer a modern audience
Macbeth at the Barbican is infused with Kubrick’s The Shining in a thoroughly modern production by the RSC’s Polly Findlay. The stage-curtain is an angular mass of purpled mirrors which folds apart like an opening eye as we meet the infirmed King Duncan in his sick bed. The three witches are transmuted into three school-girl triplets, (Ceyda Ali, Tia Sofia Begh and Miranda Beinart-Smith) who circle and jeer at Macbeth (Christopher Eccleston) and Banquo (Raphael Sowole) with the smack of playground bullies and tones of The Addams Family.
The configuration of the stage with surrounding chairs, imitating a doctor’s waiting room/ hotel foyer, adds a metatheatrical dimension which riffs on the play’s themes of surveillance, extended tensions, and restlessness. A porter (Michael Hodgson) occupies the stage’s neighbouring chairs throughout the play and Findlay syphons the menacing spirit of the witches into her darkly-comic attendant, brashly indulging in packets of crisps, lazily vacuuming around corpses and chalking deaths either side of the stage with laboured languor.
Frustratingly, he is later explicitly named ‘satan’, to the detriment of his mystique. A large digital clock sits above the stage, below a large viewing platform where we faintly observe royal dinners and oncoming battles. In a particularly conspicuous gesture, the clock starts counting down upon the execution of Duncan, anticipating Macbeth’s own tragic fate. There is a subtle nod to Stephen King’s IT in Malcolm’s coronation, as young Fleance reappears in a blue hoodie and the clock erratically flickers back into action.
Both Macbeth (Eccleston) and Lady Macbeth (Niamh Cusack) offer refined, multidimensional performances which sketch their respective downward spirals and flesh out the psychological complexity of their roles in the face of heavy-handed horror. Cusack’s Lady Macbeth’s is disarmingly vulnerable, crouched close to the ground, decked in green silks and resolving, ‘False face must hide what false heart doth know’. Indeed, the most astonishing performance is MacDuff (Edward Bennett) upon the discovery of his slaughtered family. He sways with an open mouth, asking ‘All…All…?’. Whilst much of the play’s terror is compromised by the lack of symbolic subtlety, the production is blessed with a menagerie of excellent performances and innovative staging, plating up a bloody, visual feast.