The Dead Butcher

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s 50th Birthday Season has opened with a new production of Shakespeare’s _Macbeth_. The production is directed by the RSC’s Artistic Director, Michael Boyd, and provides the company’s first full-scale chance to show-off its newly transformed theatre. With an auditorium determined to keep everyone closer to the action, this production of _Macbeth_ keeps the audience uncomfortably involved in the tragedy of the “dead butcher”.

The set, designed by Tom Piper, positions the action of the play against a landscape of post-reformation chaos, as the stage is transformed into the inside of a vandalised church, gutted of its holy idols. For the first half of the play, the smashed church windows let in too much cold, bluish light, which seems unholy in itself and after the interval the shutters are closed completely. To have Shakespeare’s most nihilistic couple living amongst the ruins of Christian order aptly sets the tone for a play which depicts the unravelling and deconstructing of civilisation, when left to man’s selfish desires and fears.

One of the most controversial and talked-about choices which Boyd has made in his new production of _Macbeth_ is to re-imagine the witches, the three weird sisters, who tell Macbeth and Banquo their prophesies, as three weird children. The children descend from the skies, as if with nooses around their necks, half-dishevelled undead, half-ethereal angels. The three child actors who play the weird children also play Macduff’s children, whose deaths are ordered by Macbeth, providing a kind of temporal loop within the play: Macbeth is haunted by the crimes he commits before he has even committed them.

An interesting echo of the absent three witches is also to be found in the three lady cellists, who sit on an upper level of the set, as if in a church corridor, and provide the eerie soundscape for the production. The sounds of clanging iron and laughing children at times came from behind and within the audience’s seats, making watching a fraught and jumpy experience. Only one woman had managed to nod off that I could see, and she was rather old (and was then rudely awakened by the sounding of bells).

Jonathan Slinger’s Macbeth is nervous and surly from the off and well becomes the grimacing, gibbering wreck his guilt renders him. Slinger, like the poor player from the play’s most famous soliloquy, “struts and frets his hour upon the stage” to such an extent that you feel ill-at-ease watching him, like watching a time-bomb, his unhinged mind looming in his every move.

Aislin McGuckin’s Lady Macbeth was good as the duplicitous woman, with a chill, covering laugh to drown out her husband’s antics and keep up face in public. However, for the success of her steely public face, McGuckins Lady Macbeth lacked the erotic charge usually given to the part, leaving her hold over Macbeth feeling unreal. In fact, the marriage was at its most interesting onstage when the two were united in a sterile, steely pact of lies, perfectly framed by a coronation-meets-baptism, featuring white clothes and water.

Banquo, played by Steve Toussaint, supplies the play with one of the much-needed good guys; he and Macduff (Aiden Kelly) provide the strong, loving patriarchs of the play which act as a foil to Macbeth’s selfish weakness. This production, partly due to the invention of the ‘weird children’ feels filled with the laughter, screams and cries of children. Indeed everyone has children except for Macbeth; it is only he who is cursed with no children and thus an uncertain heir and “fruitless crown”. The imagined descendents of Banquo are realised on stage in a visually striking scene which has tens of dolls drop from the sky, unnerving the audience as much as Macbeth.

This production puts the transformed auditorium, where no member of the audience feels safely hidden in a far-flung corner, to good use. The endless mad twitching of Macbeth leaves the audience fidgety and a sense of relief spreads through the rows when the shutters are opened at the end of the play, onto beautiful stained glass windows. Order is restored, but the audience leaves feeling the weight of having watched something terrible unravel before them. This production is less about blood-soaked sound and fury and more about the slow-burning horror of the depths humankind can sink to.

_Macbeth_ is running at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 6th October 2011 and £5 tickets are available for under 26s.

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