BBC Culture in Quarantine: Macbeth at the RSC Online
Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, having spawned countless productions as well as causing nightmares for GCSE students for decades. However, its popularity and continuous resurgence is not without fair reason. The work is a daring tale of deceit, greed and lust that rings timely even in 2020 – almost 400 years after its original publication – and that will continue to entertain audiences in years to come.
The RSC 2018 production, now released on BBC Iplayer as part of their Culture in Quarantine initiative, is directed by Polly Findlay and stars Christoper Eccleston as the eponymous lead. Eccleston takes easily to the role of honorable soldier turned disgraced mad-man, doing so with zest and grit. He is partnered nicely by Niamh Cusack as Lady Macbeth, whose portrayal of the archetypal femme fatale is sharp and convincing. The talent of the leads is echoed in a strong supporting cast, making for a production that is as entertaining as it is riveting.
Macbeth often presents a challenge for directors, given that it offers a range of themes for them to focus on (and it is impossible to pick up on everything packed within the text). Findlay opts for a deeper exploration of children/youth and time, both of which are tightly interwoven in the piece and manifest in Macbeth’s anxieties throughout the narrative. In this production, the role of the infamous “weird sisters” are played by three young children, dressed inexplicably in red onsies, carrying dolls. This is a bold choice – given their importance to the story – nevertheless, it is one that (for the most part) pays off. Whilst the trio do not carry their usual gravitas, there is something unsettling about young children discussing murder. The theme of time (or rather, waning time) is played out clearly – mainly due to the clock that appears on screen, counting down to Macbeth’s demise. As the seconds dwindle, so too does Macbeth’s sanity, with Eccleston’s portrayal of the character appearing more and more frantic as time goes on. In short, Findlay tackles a difficult text with elegance and clear intentions, making for an exciting watch.
Overall, the production is entertaining, vibrant and electric – proving that Shakespeare’s work continues to stand the test of time. The modern setting brings the story forward but could be further utilised to allow the piece to feel a little more current. Nevertheless, watching this show is a great way to pass the time and – given that it is now widely available on the BBC – it could perhaps indicate a way of making the arts more accessible to a wider audience, which is always promising but rarely achieved.
Photo: Richard Davenport