images © Marc Brenner @ RSC.
If you’re in the market for regicidal power couples cutting their teeth on one of the Bard’s offerings de rigueur, then 2023 is offering up a panoply of riches.
One can hardly swing an eerie, Cabbage Patch-like doll (just you wait for them…) without hitting a production of Macbeth. Hardly a first, perhaps, but some of the wattage lighting up the current and upcoming offerings is notable. Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma head up an international tour that kicks off in Liverpool in November. David Tennant and Cush Jumbo take to the Donmar in December. And if the Globe’s current production, running until Halloween, lacks any major billing, is nonetheless a jolting, youthful and uncharacteristically comedic take on the bleak tale.
It leaves this meaty yet fairly minimalist Macbeth, open now at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, with a tall order. For musical theatre enthusiasts (google ‘stagey’), the choice of Hamilton leading man Reuben Joseph will be a welcome and intriguing one. Yet, for the majority of audiences heading to Stratford-upon-Avon, it will be recognition of the show itself, rather than any individual company member or name, that proves the real draw.
Director Wils Wilson even pulls in some cheeky jabs at this – drafting in comedian Stewart Lee to pen a revisited take on the infamous porter scene. Alison Peebles caustically jabs out at the audience, mocking that they’re only there to appear cultured (we laugh because it’s true), whilst similarly dishing out some giggle-inducing barbs for the GCSE-age attendees. The immediate fourth wall breaking is where this new injection hits funniest and most sharp; when lending his ire to the likes of Boris and Carrie Johnson and even Huawei, Lee’s material falls flatter and feels more intrusive.
“The immediate fourth wall breaking is where this new injection hits funniest and most sharp…”
Outside of the postmodern interlude, this is Macbeth in fulsome presence. Bagpipes ring out alongside harrowing, occasionally discordant brass. The show’s witches – here feral, writhing, skittish things puppeteered by winds and energies about them – are quite literally birthed onto the stage. Dead birds fall hauntingly from the rafters, even from the off. Mists of rainfall provide a mournful backdrop. Grand curtains of gold cast across the stage or furiously torn down reflect Macbeth’s regency and mind both. Georgia McGuinness’ fusion of the medieval and the folkish with the mechanical feels somehow both stripped back and opulent at once.
And at just over three hours, there is very little left on the page (or the rehearsal room).
Whispers of cut musical moments and a good fifteen minutes having been recently shaved off of the run time hints at an even more imposing (indulgent?) beast, but the current form hits a solid balance between honouring the text, avoiding slightness and delivering a satisfying dip into its darker tendrils of murder and madness.
Sure, there are leaner Macbeths out there, and it’s perfectly possible to manifest it into a taut, pacy thriller, but tertiary characters and development are often the casualties in such instances. There’s still fairly short shrift for the likes of Siward (Thérèse Bradley, who also offers up a dignified, gentle Duncan earlier on) and others, but there’s an engaging earnestness to bit parts including Shyvonne Ahmmad as Malcolm, and George Anton as a grief-stricken Macduff. Ahmmad in particular does great grounding work, lending a hesitant and conflicted goodness to a Malcolm who becomes very easy to root for. Anton gets the showier moments, but together they make for an engaging pairing that shore up the looser focus of the latter stages of the show.
Elsewhere, Anna Russell-Martin is excellent as a droll yet perceptive Banquo, and leaves this particular reviewer with the quandary of wondering when we can finally get over having to even address the notion of gender-swapping. As was the case, for instance, with the RSC’s production of Julius Caesar earlier this season, which saw incredible gender-reversed turns from Kelly Gough and Thalissa Teixeira, it has become something of a (very welcome) norm, and nowhere is this more evident than here in Macbeth. Great performers giving fantastic, layered, nuanced turns wholly irrespective of the gender with which they identify.
“Kane is a transfixing presence throughout… a deliciously authentic turn.”
Some may grumble that the presence of so many female characters – including perhaps most notably, Duncan – robs Lady Macbeth of her individuality and agency. But they’d be wrong.
Not to mention outdated.
On the subject of Lady Macbeth, Valene Kane is a transfixing presence throughout as the prime mover behind her husband’s villainy (and later madness). First appearing barefoot in the rain, dancing with giddy, almost infantile glee with word of what awaits, Kane’s disarming whimsy soon gives way to a sensuous, more serious manipulator. And once ‘what’s done is done’, a tremulous, nervy edge creeps in as the character’s hold on events – and her husband’s sanity – begins to falter. It’s a deliciously authentic turn; Kane’s villainess depicted here as a haunted opportunist, later wracked with the anxiety of being undone, and a palatable fear of her deteriorating spouse. The bold reversal in physicality and control between the Macbeths over the course of the show even has you almost daring to feel sorry for her.
Joseph’s Macbeth, in fact, eventually becomes a thing of almost primal, unfettered rage. The final duel with Macduff is brutal, raw and protracted. Bounding about the stage, hollering and rhythmically beating his chest, it’s the crescendo of a turn that feels sharply cut for audiences of today. From the off, this is a Macbeth who is emotional, impulsive, sarcastic and even puerile at times. A literal mic drop moment offers hints at a now-towering ego.
Gone is the stoic, unmoving war hero of old who gradually unfurls. In its place is a man who offers glimpses of already being troubled in heart and mind. It isn’t so much toxic masculinity as almost noxious insecurity. Some theatregoers may again cry foul, but Joseph pitches the erratic turbulence of this emotional, torn man with plenty of gravitas and believability. As with Kane’s Lady Macbeth, you get the sense of an already damaged person, whose choices only sink them further into moral, emotional and mental turpitude.
If it may not bedazzle with the same star power as some of its seasonal competitors, this Macbeth gets the job done handsomely and effectively. It’s less sanguine than perhaps expected, and some sequences go a bit tonally adrift – the execution of Macduff’s children, for instance, is a quite disturbing melange of horror and likely-unintended humour (those dolls!). But overall, this is a slick evening of theatre that never quite feels its (substantial) length. It is stuffed with winning, mature turns and uniquely calibrated performances. It is dangerous and brooding where needed, and moody and evocative throughout. The jury will likely remain out on whether Lee’s reinvention of the porter hijinks are an improvement (or even necessary), but they certainly add a flavour of individuality.
In a year positively bursting with power-hungry Scots (no, we aren’t even going there, we’ll leave that kind of thing to Lee…), Fiennes, Tennant and co. will doubtless shift tickets and fills seats on name power alone. And yet, with Wilson’s nuanced, full-bodied showing, the RSC have pipped them to the post with a Macbeth that, whilst perhaps not definitive, takes a bloody good stab at it.
A moody, evocative and hefty visit that mines new depths of emotional fragility and consequence for its iconic leads. Kane and Joseph prove inspired choices in a production done well, but not done quickly.