duncan and mac

Duncan (Thérèse Bradley) and Macbeth (Reuben Joseph) and behind, left, a Fleance (Liam King) and  Donalbain (Amelia Isaac Jones) watching on. Pictures: Marc Brenner


The Royal Shakespeare Company



After the horror of As You Like It (which very many audiences and commentators loved), I set off to the RSC’s new Macbeth with some trepidation.

My mistake. Different actors, of course, and director, and designer. And – importantly – different composer. In fact a whole different experience. And a definite hit.

But some preliminary thoughts. The casting. The following roles were played by (wondrously talented) women actors: the witches, of course (to be fair, one male one, a marvellous lynchpin of the whole show, Dylan Reid), all superb; Lady Macbeth (Eilidh Loan, actually her understudy, usually a witch, a mesmerising achievement); Lady Macduff (Emma King, courageous, poignant); Banquo (Anna Russell-Martin, magnificent); Malcolm (the understudy, Amelia Isaac Jones, I thought best of all); Donalbain (except here understudied by Earl Siward’s son, a bearded chap); the Porter (Seyton), the knockout performance of the whole evening; two maids/servant/messengers (both good, one especially so in the sleepwalking scene); Thérèse Bradley as Duncan (excellent), doubling as Siward and a cutthroat. Cawdor (though ‘she’ has been executed).

That makes 13 active roles played by women out of (I read) 19 performers; or also to rephrase/clarify, 10 male actors in toto.

Is someone getting a little obsessive about this? Or am I getting obsessive in mildly querying it?

For look at it in context. Fabulous lead male roles have been played, here at the RSC and elsewhere, by women. 2021 saw Rosie Sheehy as King John – astounding (marvellous director: Eleanor Rhode), with also a female Cardinal Pandulph. Already by the 1990s Fiona Shaw was playing Deborah Warner’s Richard II. Tamsin Greig played Malvolio at the National Theatre. Five or so years ago saw Charlotte Josephine take on, miraculously, both Mercutio and Bardolph.

“Women actors have often felt excluded by the lack of female roles in Shakespeare's plays, but there are women playing traditionally male roles”, the RSC crowed: “in all six of the Shakespeare plays currently performing on our stages in Stratford, London and on tour.” And continued, “In our recent Troilus and Cressida, the roles of Thersites, Agamemnon, Ulysses, Aeneas and Calchas were all played by women, making it our first 50-50 gender split company for a Shakespeare production.” 50-50? Hence an eagerly sought after ‘equality’?

You never know what’s coming up next at Shakespeare’s Globe: Mark Rylance as Olivia; Kathryn Hunter as Lear (with a marvellous female-acted Fool). Hunter can play absolutely anything, and her RSC Timon of Athens was a huge hit. Talking about Timon, the director explained, “There is a challenge, which we are all confronting right now, of the lack of parts for women in the canon as they grow older.” (Actually, younger too.) “The solution to this lies in offering parts that are traditionally played by men to women. By doing that you, in fact, discover that Shakespeare was really interested in is what’s humane, what’s universal, [not] what’s gender specific.” (A bit of smug waffle?)

Hunter is induced to play Timon as a woman: “It will be Lady Timon and not Lord Timon.” Ugh. “It works much better that way – it’s more transparently universal” (???). “It just jars if someone who is a woman keeps being called a man.” Hmm.

Precisely what needs vigorous challenging. What tends to irritate most is exactly that slightly smug, know-it-all, text-twisting habit: the insistence on changing the sex of the written role.

So, Duncan can’t be a king played vividly (as it is here) by a woman, but has to be a Queen? And keep her name: ‘Queen Duncan’, aren’t we going way silly offbeam? It does seem loopy. In fact it patronises the actresses themselves – hearteningly good performers like Bradley, Isaac Jones, possibly Peebles, here. Women don’t have only to play women, for goodness’ sake. I thought that was the whole point. Invalidates this startling production’s entire noble campaign, if you like. Even those we never see: need this disgraced Thane of Cawdor be a she? ‘She was (a?) gentlewoman’, says Duncan, ‘on whom I built an absolute trust.’

Malcolm and Ross

Malcolm (Shyvonne Ahmmad) and Ross (Ryan Hunter) while watching is Duncan(Thérèse Bradley) with Banquo (Anna Russell-Martin) walking away

Re. the Holinshed-Shakespeare plot (compare in ways Richgard III) maybe it’s worth bearing in mind that the real Duncan, probably in his mid-thirties, invaded first Northumbria, his kinsman Siward’s realm, and then – months before his death – Moray (Inverness-shire). And the Mormaer (Laird, Duke) of Moray was – Macbeth. The adjacent county – Cawdor (Nairn). So why was Macbeth fighting on Duncan’s side in the first place? Duncan in history didn’t achieve much: he was killed in 1040, not in his bed, but in battle, between Inverness and Elgin – Macbeth’s territory; perhaps Cawdor’s too.

Cross-dressing. A problem? A piece of political correctness? Yes and no - but to be fair, mostly no. This egalitarianism can be intrusive, let’s not casually set that aside. Yet this roaring, explosive new Macbeth contains a whole flurry of absolutely sensational performances by women in adult, combative roles. Of course they can do it, and triumph, often carrying off men’s roles more convincingly than the men themselves. In 1600 weren’t the tip-top female roles all played, brilliantly one gathers, by boys or men (like Ben Jonson’s lamented teen Solomon Pavey)? Isn’t today’s a similar balancing act, a new revolution?

Come to think of it, rather than these mixed packages, so as to give well-deserved space and opportunity to the girls, how about an entire Shakespeare played by women actors? Yes, Lear is possible. Henry IV could be a hoot. The Italian plays: Measure for Measure might be interesting; an Othello far more so. A Verona all-women Romeo and Juliet surely a must. Plus Two Gentlemen – but not Gentlewomen.

Of course the trade-in, the reverse deal would have to be plays inhabited entirely by male actors, as of old: male Imogens, male Desdemonas and Biancas, male Rosalinds, Cressidas, chaps as three different Katharinas. How about – schools-permitting – all-schoolgirl RSC casts? A wonderful teenage Macbeth with Lady Macbeth; King Lear’s and Richard III’s Gloucester? However no urgent need for RSC all-boy casts: they exist in Stratford already, the miraculous, buoyant Edward’s Boys troupe from Shakespeare’s old school, a few yards away, created and directed to perfection (and national acclaim) by Perry Mills.

Actually the feyest part was allocated to Liam King’s unfortunate (though ultimately triumphant) Fleance. Dressed in the most ghastly white outfit, like a quasi-babygrow kilt, surely far too old (Fleance is normally constructively seen as a young teen or younger, thus the desperation of Banquo for his unlikely escape all the greater. In fact the scene with Fleance (and Banquo) being flung around by the murderers was splendidly directed; he is nearly killed several times. But he’s not already old enough to have sired several Fleancelets already.

When King resurfaces (doubles) as a huddled up a Macduff’s son (called Coll?), the amazing courage of the boy’s challenge to the murderer ‘Thou liest, thou shag-hair’d villain’) and tearful exit (‘He has killed me, mother!’) – plus his “What is a traitor?” is diminished by his not being a comparative fledgling. He’s a little lad, standing in, fatally, for his absent father. One of Shakespeare’s little miracles. Prince Arthur in King John, the two young princes teasing Antony Sher’s Richard III).

And my final doubts (sorry about all these, bit of a killjoy), before tributes to this what turned out fabulous, and gloriously acted production. From the outset, it seemed one might have to dub this ‘the staging without a Macbeth’. Reuben Joseph – who came so good – devoted over half an hour to a lacklustre performance, finely spoken but devoid of imagination and impoverishedly, or uselessly, dressed (might do for a Greek play).


Lady Macbeth (Valene Kane) and Macbeth (Reuben Joseph)- Eilidh Loan, normally one of the witches, was Lady Macbeth on the night of the review

When he and Banquo (who in Holinshed, the play’s main source, is actually Macbeth’s accomplice in the murder, Shakespeare has invented the Banquo scenes) first appear you might have thought he was Banquo’s adjutant, or his flewsy, not his war colleague or supreme military commander. Anna Russell-Martin, destined to shine well in as the banquet-wrecking ghost, seemed so much more assured, Joseph so demure, you might have thought.

Macbeth’s gestures (still at the start and only in the early scenes, NB) are limp, his stance vapid, his movements wan and ineffectual. His reaction to being Thane of Cawdor (more correctly Calder) is nil; to being King hereafter, zero. ‘The greatest is behind’ (an aside concealed from Ross and Angus): weak.

What is going on? Is this part of the plan, director Wils Wilson’s structured design? A clever way of showing how Macbeth evolves from innocent, decent guy (after all Lady Macbeth detects that right from the start (“Yet do I fear thy nature; it is too full o’the milk of human kindness…’. If so, it works – ish. If not, heaven help us.

Yet either way, he’s wet: a weed and, I fear, an initial flop. And then the speeches: the dagger speech is fairly shaped, not without variety, but scarcely galvanising, like a major Hamlet soliloquy. He’s still revealed – off the battlefield – as a wimp. ‘If ‘twere done…’, not quite the longest speech in the play (the dagger scene is, at 32+), is where Macbeth wavers: yes – no – yes – no – perhaps. The pauses were all, if not wrong, inept (yet pauses and silences are going to be one of Joseph’s brilliant strong points anon). Key lines (they’re all vital: ‘catch with his surcease, success’ (try saying that quickly); ‘ ‘Not bear the knife…myself.’ ‘Will plead like angels trumpet-tongu’d’. ‘And pity, like a naked new-born babe…’. ‘that tears shall drown the wind’. This is one of Shakespeare’s greatest. Like Lear; like Caesar’s hubristic ‘But I am constant as the northern star’ (he wasn’t); like Prospero abjuring.

No, it was duff, poorly paced, possibly inadequately directed, and dull. It seems extraordinary the first word Joseph uttered that really made us sit up was (aptly?) ‘Sláinte!’ – Cheers! Good health! Yet pacing, and especially pauses, silences, were one of the supreme gifts of this markedly talented Macbeth. And let it be said, Joseph’s enunciation, indeed the entire cast’s in Wilson’s production, was absolutely top class. Couldn’t be bettered. No language coach, but ‘Voice and Text’, a curious modern term, seems firmly credited to Ros Steen (her first RSC credit). As she is acclaimed as ‘Scotland’s foremost Voice Coach’ it has to be to her we owe the splendid, arresting Scottish accents deployed by the entire cast. Such a magnificent achievement, one would have to say authentic, too. Except that everybody spoke with exactly the same Scottish accent. Just to be picky (my last jibe), it does occur that the accents in Glamis, Inverness (Nairn), Ross, Fife, Loch Lomond (Lennox), Dunfermline (the historic capital), might just have been slightly different.

Yet as indicated, the dagger speech grew and grew better. By ‘it is a knell That summons thee to heaven or to hell’, the real Joseph has emerged, and in top gear, he was awesome. The dark eyes, the tension, the growing savagery. It is a wonderful and relieving transition. A desperate Raskolnikov. Titus Andronicus. Sejanus. A calculating Iago. A roaring Othello.

What ensued was amazing. The murder (once decision made, knives redelivered, knocking – hilarious buzzing - ceased and castle gate opened) completely transforms Reuben Joseph’s performance into one of the strongest Macbeths I have seen onstage – even when they include Branagh, McKellen, Sher, Patrick Stewart. The evil, the nastiness, the unhesitant brutality, the relishing of cruelty for its own sake, all these figured big in the play’s later stages. Joseph revealed himself capable of a whole gamut of tiny details.


The three witches Eilidh Loan, in her normal day job, Dylan Read and Amber Sylvia Edwards in their costumes made from hair and fur.

Gone were the weak hand pitter-patterings of the start. His arms now became a kind of war machine in themselves. And there were the slight facial twitches (hugely effective at one of the banquet’s interruptions) – the most horrendous smirks, and sniggers: you could almost visualise him grinding his teeth to devour the raw flesh of his victims. His playing around with a dagger next to ‘Queen’ Duncan, his cousin, who is welcoming him - you could almost see it as sexual, though more nastily prophetic – was one of those many classic, miniscule, intimate directorial touches that littered this production, and lifted the whole evening on to such a high platform of excellence.

Fleance (this old Fleance) jumping onto and nestling against crumpled ‘uncle’ Macbeth – how about that for irony? Or explore one of Wilson and Joseph’s most astounding touches: Macbeth, the guests departed, left holding and nursing an imagined (very lifelike) babe-in-arms. As with so many of the best details in this staging, the moment is either extended – he keeps dandling it – or elongated conversely by means of silences; or unexpectedly compacted. Great directing, which one can compare with Phyllida Lloyd’s astonishing extra scena in her Covent Garden Macbeth (Verdi), in which we see both Macbeth’s, husband and wife, surrounded by (imagined) little white-clad, karate-like children, like baby lions, a brilliantly constructed image of how things might have been, had those witches never spat out their bitter, Nostradamus-like truths.

We missed seeing the indisposed Valene Kane as Lady Macbeth that night, but instead Eilidh Loan, standing in confidently as an understudy has to, was another veritable hit. Sinuous, electric – she has amazing mobility – she was equally at her best when planning the regicide (very much the dominant partner) plus fast-declining, hand-wringing surveyed by the thoughtful, notably wise doctor (I think – programme not clear, the excellent Benjamin Osugo, in his impressive RSC Debut an impactful and loyal Angus, who although a minor role helps get the production moving, as most certainly does Kevin Lennon’s fine, distinguished Lennox). The scene lost something because doctor and maid figured downstage, her agonies, up.. She could have been placed right there on the apron. Surely rectifiable.

The three big questions about Lady M – has she (she has) had a child, (‘I have given suck’)? Well yes. Though not by the title role, but by her previous husband, possibly overthrown and dispatched by Macbeth himself; history has it Macbeth adopts the boy, and makes him his successor. ‘Bring forth men children only’ may seemingly point to no shared offspring anyway (the historical couple had none). And does Lady M, after the sleepwalking crisis, commit suicide.? I gathered this production thought so. Very feasible dramatically, historical or no. Or was she pregnant, even died in childbirth? Endless speculation.

But outstanding performances came in with a bang, one after another. Not just the sisters three (Amber Sylvia Edwards, Dylan Read and – one assumes not the redistributed Loan), the movement of whom – emerging from the rocks or – it seemed – the soil itself, a whole welter of dances and assailings and interplay, which fractionally lessened the iambics but were ideally mesmerising; but Alasdair Macrae (was it he?) as the Bloody Captain (actually Sergeant).


George Anton as Macduff

What a speech he delivered ; as slowly, haltingly and deliberately as I can remember anywhere; and what a gripping scene (actually the Captain speech is a gift for any actor; but so forcefully and variedly explored by Macrae), before Duncan’s ‘go get her surgeons’. Clad all in scarlet, one of plenty of inspired ideas from Designer Georgia McGuinness (though she was guilty, if costumes were hers, a) of dressing Macbeth in that weedy outfit (though good long kilt, the tartan blackish-brownish and unidentifiable – so apt, a bit grim) and b) of not providing for changes of clothing. Macbeth is crowned (actually he isn’t) in that same limp (or senatorial) garb; dines in it, fights in it (this is a king, for heaven’s sake). Banquo goes riding unchanged, though his (her?) ghost costume, a sort of sinister or mysterious green-gold, lent considerable atmosphere. Lady Macbeth, once she’s in amber-yellow, briefly most effective, is stuck with it. Is the big idea that Scots like Mel Gibson never changed clothes? Don’t change for dinner?

But one relished other performances, and their attire doesn’t need to change. Part of the effect of Macduff’s appearance at Edward the Confessor’s court – at least two years after Duncan’s demise –(Edward did not succeed till 1042) - is that he needs to look a slightly awkward, embarrassed (he is criticised for leaving Scotland), out of place Scot (the more important given the news he is to receive): no clothes swap needed. Whereas Malcolm may have smartened up or even anglicised in dress during his sojourn in exile. Likewise Ross, when he intervenes. His desperate attempts to avoid spitting out the news (of Fife and his family’s deaths) almost verged on comedy, but were one of many memorable contributions from this excellent, ever-loyal Ross (Ryan Hunter). I remember the Ross in my first production (Old Vic) was a young Ian Bannen. Ross without Cromarty is the runner around, a kind of message boy. But he’s a role than can be made much of, with planning. Here he mattered. A lot.

It was satisfying enough to see these numerous first-rate performers, superb in action, assume male roles so effortlessly; doubly so when two of them – Lady Macbeth (here given her historical name, Gruach, alternatively, Gruoch) and Malcolm were understudies anyway. Hats off: these were excellent performers, and with Wils Wilson’s directing, admirably convincing interpretations. Thérèse Bradley’s Duncan was splendid; her Siward slightly less well directed, but I guess OK. Her Duncan royal, up to a point and certainly commanding.

Why does Siward support Malcolm and invade? Versions have it Duncan was his son-in-law, and the two royal boys his grandsons – alternatively, nephews. Anna Russell-Martin as Banquo continued incisive, authoritative, forceful, never less than a top performer, outshone latterly only by Amelia Isaac Jones’s endlessly impressive stand-in Malcolm (she usually plays the younger and lesser brother, Donalbain) he, filled in for here by, o my goodness it gets complicated, Michael Wallace, who is actually the doomed Young Siward).

The useful sets (McGuinness) were actually eclipsed by the sensational music. Alasdair Macrae (the Captain, though looking puzzlingly unlike himself), as well as acting, produced an astonishingly haunting score, brilliantly used, much in evidence, the performers surging onstage, yet not overdone, and played a clutch of instruments himself.

Despite a glimpse of imperious electric guitar, the essence of this music, bagpipes aside, was brass: Tuba, Trombones, Euphonium AND the amazing-looking low-pitched Sousaphone. The resulting sound, tuneful often but sometime more like a massive, or subdued, rasp, was everything one could want: martial, domineering, eerie, somnolent; threatening, sinister; profane, irreverent, downright evil. Utterly inspired. Just what was needed. Kenneth Branagh’s in a converted Manchester church was the most striking recent Macbeth. All he needed was music like Macrae’s. Ingenious. Awe-inspiring. In fact, frightening. And suitable for Scottish.

There was a moment, just before or as Reuben Joseph’s Macbeth emerged as his true spectacular self, that one wondered if another could fit the bill better. This was George Anton’s Macduff, whose first lines (inside the walls) seemed to probe all the heights and depths of soldier, rebel, usurper, manipulator. ‘Awake! Awake! Ring the alarum-bell’. Fife takes charge while the host shambles and stumbles blearily. ‘Death’s counterfeit’; ‘great doom’s image!’ ‘To countenance this horror!’ This was powerful stuff from Macduff, somewhat Patrick Stewart-like, and Anton’s height and stature alone, let alone his full-bodied, thunderous baritone, seemed like Coriolanus exploding.


Alison Peebles as Porter


But the graph admittedly reversed: Macduff’s receipt of the news from near Kirkcaldy proved fractionally less well contrived (true, it’s Malcolm who emerges kingly here instead), even as Macbeth’s (Joseph’s) 17 year unfolding reign rises to magnificent new heights. Yet Anton, staggering but surviving, returned to full strength for the final confrontation. Meanwhile Amelia Isaac Jones, inventively gesturing, with marvellous intonation, showed her glorious mettle with Malcolm’s wonderful (ironic) broken self-deprecating speech: ‘my poor country Shall have more vices than it had before, …That, when they shall be open’d, black Macbeth Will seem as pure as snow…’.

The blood was a bit odd. When Lady Macbeth sweeps away the daggers and returns, her charming yellow robe is totally unbloodied. Both Macbeth and his wife acquire reddened hands that can only be likened to gloves. Neat idea. But they keep the gloves for the next half dozen scenes - more - in full view if everyone. Is this a subtle way of suggesting their guilt stares out to all? Does everyone deep down guess the truth (the main ones quickly do)? Or do the non-cleansed crimson hands (‘Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood Clean from my hand? No’ - compare Lady Macbeth’s ‘all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.’) tell us what’s going on in his own mind, so that, like Banquo’s ghost, only he can see them? If by design, the idea looked a bit curious. And why, throughout, does he disport what looks like a scarlet neckscarf? He clings to it like a fetish. More symbolism?

The witches were superb, wild, gripping, bunched, scary, dressed like hags and toothlessly yelling, whisking around on kind of ski-poles, the direction of them consistently excellent. Scurrilous whispers (some of Shakespeare’s lines for them are dirty as well as weird). Voices that sound like Gollum. Intimate blocks (one splendid compact triad like the hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil, speak-no-evil monkeys). Working with Wilson, Movement Director Julia Cheng must have choreographed this vivid hyperactivity. These Wyrds or wyrd sisters are the manipulators, the ones who wield the real power. They alienate a potentially decent relative of the royal house, already one of the most powerful aristocrats in the land, Macbeth son of Findláech, into not just an assassin, but the most despised figure – for all their internecine warfare - of any of the mid-11th century British rulers: Mercia, Wessex, Welsh, Danish, Saxon, Normans, none produces a distempered figure to compare. Or so say Holinshed, and the Bard.

A weedy Birnam Wood, as so often, on a restricted stage perhaps inevitably, but Joseph has us all on the edge of our seats. He throws stools and chairs around, dramatic enough, but it’s when he pirouettes with a single chair, again a brilliantly devised, protracted sequence, as if it is the only thing that will keep him company, apart from Seyton and maybe a dog or two: something he can control, yet which strangely controls him. How has he got here? Regicide, but also the imperious urge ‘to be thus, but to be safely thus’. Powerful. He has a kind of epileptic fit. ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow’ was superbly spoken – a microphone waking the whole theatre house up, brilliantly paced, with astounding, finessed volume control: a masterpiece. His energy was dazzling, his invention powerful. He chases off scared servants, polishes off Young Siward (‘Thou wast born of woman’), is nearly killed himself (Kaitlin Howard, Fights Director), nearly executes Macduff as many times, but has nine lives. Or eight, at least.

And by now we know what the music really evolves into. It’s a death march, looped, audially horrifying. ‘I ‘gin to be aweary of the sun.’

When Michael Hordern, in that Old Vic staging I saw as a ten year old, calls for his chief henchman Seyton, he shouts ‘Seaton; Seaton I say.’ More recently, as here, it tends to be ‘Sayton’. Satan. How apt. And here – this may be new – Wilson makes Seyton the gatekeeper at Glamis; a most sensible doubling. But the more so, because it gives us two bites of the amazing Alison Peebles. If ever a performer was up to rival Kathryn Hunter, Peebles is the one. A staggering Porter/gatekeeper. Bent, shuffling, plodding on sticks, muttering, an antique retainer (or crone): what a performance, what an extraordinary creation. There were a few critical complaints, even before this opened, about tweaking it: new lines dropped in, some aimed at the audience not so much to ‘update’ the speech but to pepper it with additional canny wit. Probably the same could be done with Dogberry and Verges in Much Ado.

Here it worked a wonderful treat. Indeed he/she brought the house down. It’s not as if all Shakespeare‘s Porter was randomly or outrageously ‘cut’. ‘Buzz, buzz, buzz’ instead of ‘knock, knock, knock’ was a hoot (as the gate bell produced a much-repeated but very funny ‘bzzz’ sound). His ‘equivocator’ is kept; ‘I’ll [devil-]porter it no further’, ‘I pray you, remember the porter’, and much else is still slipped in, interspersed. The whole scene (introducing Act II/iii) is Shakespeare’s brilliant way of indulging in hilarity between a heinous murder and its discovery. And that it was in Peebles’ breathtakingly charted, knockout performance, One of the funniest bits even in Stratford’s stunning history.

The witches’ vision – parade - of Banquo’s descendants was effective enough: each bearing a triangular mirror that reveals to Macbeth his true, collapsing self. And the conclusion? Malcolm’s speech, ‘this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen’, giving Scotland Earldoms (as in England) for the first time, is delivered stoutly frontstage, direct to the audience. It’s a surprise, a very wise and welcome one, simply but expertly devised.

And in the end, we could almost predict it, we see gathering the stage to himself, spotlit, Liam King’s whiter than white Fleance. It’s a conclusion that has been seen many times before, on stage and on screen. But it always works. The survivor. The future. Hope. The House of Stewart. And James I.

Not unflawed, but an exciting, superbly drilled production. And an undoubted triumph for the RSC.

Roderic Dunnett


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