three witches

The witches . . .terrifyingly controlling and effective. Pictures: Richard Davenport


Royal Shakespeare Company



Polly Findlay’s RSC Macbeth took off fabulously on several counts: first, she cast the three witches as (roughly) 11 to 13 year old girls, memorably clad in quite garish pyjamas, electrifying in their speech and wondrously subtle in their moves and half moves.

Somehow the replacement of old crones by canny, even Ariel-like figures, , knowingly and shiveringly in touch with some inner world, and imbued with incredibly dangerous powers of prediction: alive and scampering, slithering here and there, swivelling the furniture as if to devise the setting for the next mishap, this trio is terrifyingly controlling and effective.  

Vividly abreast of their roles, marvellously moved and directed, all three give five star performances. They carry and nurse dolls, succubi-like babies: are they simply dealers in death, and are those the next generation of evil? Their laughs are unnerving: when they appear above at the end, it is a grim reminder that these impish Norns will not give up after this generation. There are three teams of three actors. If the rest are as good as our trio, they must be superb.  

Another strong point at the opening is Duncan. Findlay starts with him in bed, before the play begins. He enlivens dramatically at news of the victories of Macbeth and Banquo, transfers eagerly to a wheelchair, leads the toasts almost athletically in the upstairs gallery (constantly used to effect in this setting by Fly Davis).

Though one always imagines Duncan as decrepit and on the way out even without the Macbeths’ help, this one (David Acton in fine fettle) seems as perky as any. Duncan, one imagines, might be an ex-warrior himself. As Macbeth reminds us, he is in fact Duncan’s cousin (‘kinsman’): they are from the same stock. He deals regally and engagedly with the Bloody Captain (Stevie Basaula, rather good: ‘As sparrows, eagles, or the hare the lion…Doubly redoubled strokes upon the foe’).


ldy mc 

Niamh Cusack as Lady Macbeth

At the outset, hovered around by the girlie-witches, are Banquo and Macbeth. They make a strong impact together, with Raphael Sowole’s warrior-like Banquo a forceful opposite number to Christopher Eccleston’s initially amiable but increasingly alienated Glamis. But while Banquo brings on his son Fleance (here Hector Magraw, one of three playing him) Eccleston gives us a nasty taste from the start. His asides are nastier, sneerier, more snarling than many a Macbeth. His ‘vaulting ambition’ is there from the start: ‘The greatest is behind’, contrasted already with doubt: ‘If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me, without my stir.’

This promising start is not fully maintained. First we have the first bizarre entry in the castle of Lady Macbeth (Niamh Cusack), who whistles round the stage like some kind of hyperactive leprechaun, gabbling out her words in the attractive, lilting Cusack Irish burr but making little impact in the process. When she settles down, in her exchanges with Eccleston, both rise in our estimation. But both have a habit of dropping their voices, sometimes to effect but more commonly the opposite

One of the least good ideas was to put music, even soft music, behind Macbeth’s ‘If it were done when ‘tis done’ speech. The effect was destroyed, just as certainly as the silence behind ‘Is this a dagger..?’ enabled Eccleston to shine. Everywhere else, Rupert Cross’s restrained music was splendid: searing upper strings for moments of shock, alluring middle voices for the coronation scene[U1] , and so on.

The Thanes and various henchmen were all OK: Bally Gel’s always sympathetic Ross; Tim Samuel’s rather ominous Lennox, who turns up latterly (and inaccurately?) as a staunch and rather unpleasant Macbeth supporter, presiding over the massacre of MacDuff’s family (a pregnant Mariam Haque, Joshua Vaughan). The scene in England, where Malcolm (a decent and proper but slightly underpowered Luke Newberry) betrays his sense of unworthiness to Macduff, was deliberately played at low key: thus, when MacDuff hears the fatal news from home, it is by pauses and silences that the intensity is brought home. ‘All? . . . all? . . . all?’ (‘He has no children. What! All my pretty chickens and their dam At one fell swoop?’).

One feels for MacDuff: how could one not? But here and elsewhere (except when he explodes twice, which is fearfully impressive) Edward Bennett cut a rather gauche figure: more of a Polonius, say. MacDuff must ideally be vigorous, virile, the father of a fledgling, not a grown up family. When Bennett emerges in war attire, its seems somehow almost comic. Lines fail to impact, the personality feels thinly contrived; even though the moment when he effectively cuts Macbeth’s throat is quite a shock.



Christopher Eccleston as Macbeth

The logic of casting Donalbain as played by a girl (Donna Banya) seemed a bit curious. Young Hector Magraw’s Fleance was frankly pretty wet. But the way Polly Findlay uses him, not least where on two occasions he ends up in Lady Macbeth’s ironic embrace, the witty vignette when he goes off disporting Macbeth’s crown, and the nastily disturbing, heavily ironic finale where it is implied that evil may yet come to Scotland from Fleance’s descendants, only adds to the undertow of nastiness promised by the eerily malignant witches.

Eccleston is at his finest when he is not musing sotto voce (though sniggering he is nicely unpleasant), but when he takes command and bestrides the throne as ruler. Besides, the banquet scene is vigorous and forceful, indeed the madder he becomes, the more convincing and striking Eccleston proves. He is splendid dithering over the daggers after the murder; he engages our sympathy with ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’; his handling of Banquo’s murderers is suitably bullying; Eccleston’s Macbeth has something of Richard III about him, devoid of shame, quick to anger, savage at worst. There are a few exceptions early on, but it’s a fine, well gauged performance; the staring, half crazed eyes have it.

Cusack, the spitting image of her father, comes good after that over excitable first scene, which somehow instantly transforms for the better when she first falls on her knees. Her exchanges with Eccleston, her urging to the murder, her bland deceits in dealing with the thanes, the reprimands to Macbeth as he in terror wrecks their dinner (‘You have displac’d the mirth..’), and a sleepwalking scene upstairs and downstairs as effective as the opening scene was weak, all augured well. One problem with that first castle scene was the extent to which she lowers her voice. That should have been corrected directorially.

However two other characters seemed to me to stand out a mile. The first is Michael Hodgson’s Porter. Findlay invents of him a most remarkable figure. Before the knocking at the gate there is he, sitting on a chair rearstage. Mostly unsmiling, he occasionally bursts into a nasty spell of laughter. He has a red carpet sweeper, with which he endlessly sweeps the stage: mopping up blood? He controls the digital red clock which ticks down, amazingly, to reach zero at Macbeth’s demise. He chalks on the wall, and it looks grim. He pops up as if to fill the gaps, as when he turns up to supply the third man at Banquo’s murder; you’d think he might make a Seyton (Macbeth’s vilest henchman), and indeed, for a few seconds, he does. The Porter scene (‘here’s an equivocator’) is memorably sneery and nasty, but exceptionally articulate. Findlay gives us a knockout, knowing performance. It’s so sinister, it’s as if he were a fourth witch. A complete surprise, brilliantly engineered.

Lizzie Powell’s lighting design simply got everything in the right place. But the other performance that to me was staggering was Raif Clarke. A youngster, he turns up near the end as an aide to Macbeth, and displays a remarkable insolence and cheek. His moves, his shakes of the head, swirling of the body and suppressed laughter all make of him a strange curio of a character. Astounding. Utterly memorable, and wholly original. Clarke has already picked up some youthful film credits; but what a dazzling asset to any stage director filling much more substantial roles. To 18-09-18 then Barbican 15-10-18 to 18-01-19.

Roderic Dunnett


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