Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Opened 26 April, 2011

Jonathan Slinger does not begin this production as compellingly as his previous RSC portrayals of other kings, Richard II and III. It is a reading of almost radiant clarity, but not an electrifying one. But this is not a charismatic Macbeth; he follows the currents of fate, assiduously but without marrow-deep commitment. This can itself lead to chilling moments, such as the matter-of-factness with which he foresees the need to be more efficiently tyrannical, dismissing his occasional scruples as “the initiate fear that wants hard use”, or the degree to which he later declares to have spread his tentacles with “There’s not a one of them but in his house I keep a servant fee’d”. By Act Five he is palpably exhausted with evil, but realises that this is his only path so puts his back into it.

Michael Boyd’s production is characteristically packed with ideas both high-concept and dramatically driven. Tom Piper’s set of shattered church windows pre-echoes the English Reformation five centuries later; a branch of Birnam wood is re-planted to allude to the Green Tree prophecy regarding the succession to Edward the Confessor. Then, in the midst of the action, Macduff’s remark about being haunted by the ghosts of his wife and children becomes literally true (the children are symbols both of innocence and, doubling as the witches, of infernal duplicity). It almost seems as if Steve Toussaint as Banquo has been given a luxuriant set of dreads simply to justify Macbeth’s gasp to his ghost, “Never shake thy gory locks at me.” (Although when the kingly line of Banquo’s heirs appear in the vision scene, the sudden appearance of a host of black dolls hanging from the flies is disconcerting in perhaps more ways than intended.) There is a strong Irish element to the Scottish court, from Aislín McGuckin’s Lady Macbeth right down to the drunken porter, though I suspect this is coincidental.

Adroit editing (the witches’ superfluous scenes amongst themselves, for instance, have gone entirely) brings the evening in at barely two and a half hours. There is no startling originality (Boyd even follows Rupert Goold’s 2007 production in staging the banquet scene on either side of the interval, with and without ghost respectively), but in both concept and in Slinger’s execution it is thoughtful and expressive.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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