The moment when Christopher Eccleston’s open and engaging Macbeth most powerfully connected to Niamh Cusak’s fierce and powerful Lady Macbeth came with his most direct reference to the child this production assumes they had together and lost:
Bring forth men-children only!
For thy undaunted mettle should compose
Nothing but males! (1.7)
At that line, Lady Macbeth shatters, and her head falls into her husband’s chest. For a second, it’s possible to glimpse the marriage that once stood behind these “dearest partner[s] in greatness” (15). It was a welcome view into that emotional core in a production in which the two lead roles were powerfully played but mostly in parallel to each other. I tend to like Macbeth productions that emphasize the marriage bond early, so that part of the play’s tragedy lies in its dissolution. (The best example I’ve seen was by Cheek by Jowl in 2013.)
Eccleston’s performance of the tyrant emphasized physical power and charisma. He did a great job reaching all sides of the RSC theater, and often conveyed a gruff charisma that seemed most appropriate when, in the first and last acts, he wore a (modern) soldier’s costume. He started the early speech “If it ’twere done, when ’tis done…” (1.7) too fast, but he fell into compelling rhythm as he paced through the lines. The only big speech that he seemed to scant was, oddly, the familiar cadences of “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” (5.5), though whether he was simply playing Macbeth’s own exhaustion or the progression alienation of the central couple from each other left no force behind “She should have died hereafter” (5.5) was hard to tell.
Cusak’s Lady Macbeth showed her strength in evening gowns and high heels, in particular when she held together the party of nobles while he husband gaped at Baquo’s ghost (3.4). In the moment of her highest melodrama — “Unsex me here” (1.5) and “I have given suck” (1.7) — she acquired a kind of stately authority in extremity, so that Macbeth’s “men-children only” seemed to be a counter-blow in response to her overwhelming attack. I thought about the meddle/metal and male/mail resonances as he spoke his lines: did he want his wife to be made of steel, or does he fear that the lost child has made her steely? What lasting monument does the doomed couple really want? I though also about the other play the RSC is doing this summer, Romeo and Juliet, in which the two lovers end up as dead statues. Something in love wants to freeze people into art?
Beyond the two strong if perhaps not entirely connected performances at the center, this production distinguished itself in several high-concept ways. A trio of very young girls played the Weird Sisters, who appeared much more often than the few scenes they have in the play and in fact presided over the final scene. Dressed in pink pajamas and sometimes carrying dolls, the girls carried the desired creepy horror-movie vibe.
The Porter, played by Michael Hodgson, also stayed on stage for nearly the entire show, keeping a chalk tally of the body count and setting a countdown clock to 2:00 at the death of Duncan than hit 0:00 exactly as Macbeth gave his final “enough” and fell anti-climactically to Macduff’s sword at the play’s end. In a cyclical gambit that’s now somewhat familiar, the clock started again for the final tableau, as Banquo’s son Fleance appeared ready to challenge Luke Newberry’s boyish Malcolm for the throne.
The other standout performance was Raphael Sowole as Banquo, who nicely combined tenderness toward his son with a soldier’s bearing. During the banquet scene, Macbeth several times appeared to be afraid of empty air, but when Banquo’s ghost at last appeared, face covered in blood, Sowole managed, despite how many times I’ve seen this play, to be shocking. Sowole, another debut actor for this RSC season, also played Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet, who appeared as an extra-textual ghost late in that play. I saw Sowole at the pub after the show last night, and almost asked him how the double ghosting brought together the two doomed soldiers. But it was late, and I didn’t want to bug the performers.
Duchess of Malfi tonight!