To celebrate Jesus’s zombification this past week, my family took a wee little trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon, the birthplace of that other influential man, William Shakespeare, or as I call him endearingly, Billy Shakes. We visited the wee little house where he was born and grew up, and the not so wee cottage where his future wife, Anne Hathaway (not that one) grew up down the road, as well as the truly authentic Ye Olde Souvenir Shop of yore where my mom could buy magnets of Meghan Markle. But that’s all for a different post. Today is Theatre Thursday, and so we will talk about the most exciting thing to me about visiting Stratford – seeing a performance by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Our dates coincided with their performance of Macbeth, which despite reading a lot and knowing in various inspired-by forms, I’ve never seen performed as written. Exciting! Guess what, Macbeth is forked up. Like reals forked up. It’s so gory and troubling and violent and creepy. That Billy tho.
This production of Macbeth attempted to modernize it just a wee little bit, by performing the original text (I mean thank god; no one coming to the RSC wants to hear anything but the original text) but with the actors dressed in modern attire: gowns at the dinners, regular suits, and the kingsmen and army people wearing camo and bulletproof vests during battle scenes. It was unnecessary. I understand the desire to put your own stamp on a production of a play that has been performed innumerable times, but there’s no need to update Shakespeare. I mean it’s Shakespeare. It’s been performed a billion trillion times because it is pretty solid as is. And if you are going to try to modernize it, changing up the costumes is a half-assed attempt that really isn’t going to cut it. Go big or stick to what’s foolproof. But don’t go big if you are the Royal Shakespeare Company because people are coming to see og Shakespeare, you know? Just do it og. The few set pieces were also modern: desk chairs, dinner set, water cooler, &c. I don’t actually get the water cooler bit, because that and a few waiting-room style chairs made an area look like, well, a hospital waiting room, and at first I thought it was going to be directed to make it look like all the action was just inside a deranged person’s head, and I was all ‘hey I liked this better when it starred Alan Cumming on Broadway’ and while there are indeed two deranged persons onstage, there was never anything hinting at it being a mental patient’s hallucination or anything like that.
But forget everything I’ve said so far. Really, the only thing you need to know was that they had the witches portrayed by three little girls in pajamas and slippers carrying creepy baby dolls and it was the CREEPIEST FORKING THING YOU’VE EVER SEEN. Like, the witches are already scary. Little girls in horror movies are the scariest things. And baby dolls of the sort they were carrying are beyond terrifying. You put them all together and what do you get, the most bloodcurdling rendition of the witches in the history of time. NOT OKAY. NOT APPROVED. Their tiny little voices in unison will give me nightmares for years.
A big other directing decision that I understand but highly disapprove of was the use of a digital timer right in the middle of the stage, counting down two hours from when Macbeth kills the king until Macbeth himself dies (do we need spoiler warnings? you’ve had 400 years). It’s saying something lofty about how we have limited time and everything is a matter of time and time is of the essence or WHATEVER but all I could think was how on earth did that entire scene take only 4 minutes? what time do you think it stops at for intermission? is it going to keep running through intermission or do I really have an hour and 40 minutes left? wait what just happened I was too busy watching the seconds tick? So, yeah, it was incredibly distracting and everyone I was with and everyone we spoke to at intermission agreed that it was too distracting for what it was worth. It made the play seem longer than it is and it took me out of it. It’s hard enough to understand the Elizabethan language without having your attention spar with a distracting clock.
The first act did drag a big even aside from the timer situation. Maybe because there wasn’t enough of Lady Macbeth, as the actress playing her, Niamh Cusack, was the strongest in the cast. Maybe my wee little brain just needed the time to acclimate to the language; it’s been a while since my last Shakespearean outing. Also I was counting the minutes (well, tracking via the timer) until I could yell at my dad for whispering. Also the person behind us was super sick and coughing the entire time and I couldn’t wait until the lights came up and I could say ‘hey did you mean to go to the hospital because you went to the wrong place.’ The second act was much more captivating as all the shit went to shit and as you felt the comeuppance of our leading evildoers getting closer and closer. You really wanted them to get comeupped; they’re REALLY bad people. I thought the actor playing Macduff, Edward Bennett, did a fantastic job with his scene when he finds out about his family. What he did by simply repeating the word ‘all’ over and over with clearly changing emotions and realizations was quite moving. And our leading man, Christopher Eccleston, was no slouch either. He did seem to be ramped up the entire time, with a Macbeth that operated at or above a certain level of intensity and never dipped below it, so I was kind of like ahh chill dude the whole time, but I suppose that Macbeth never should dip below a high level of intensity anyway so it was a good performance. It’s just so hard to watch this show with anything other than a cringey feeling of ‘ahhh just someone anyone please kill these monsters already!’ Which they do, yayy.
The best part of this production was honestly the actor playing the porter. Michael Hodgson could have easily been a character in Beetlejuice, or maybe Addams Family Values, with his creepy but hilarious manner and his deadpan, matter-of-fact delivery. He was seated onstage (near the water cooler) pretty much the whole time, so he was almost an all-knowing character. I loved when he was eating a little snack pack of something while talking to some murderers, and one of them snatched it out of his hand, and he just pulled out another little pack from his pocket. I love when someone came out looking for Macbeth, who was cowering in a corner, and the porter pointed over to him. But the best was his subtle tracking of Macbeth’s victims, by drawing chalk tallies on the brick wall at the back. Well, it was subtle in Act I. In Act II, he spends most of his time tallying up all the deaths, I imagine to come, as the battles get under way. Hundreds and hundreds of chalk marks cover the walls in a pretty dramatically effective use of the porter’s time, though not as fun as when he was talking.
As I said, I haven’t seen a different straight production, so I’m not sure if our ending was special or regular, but it did seem special. Maybe it’s because I just saw a production of Pippin where they use what’s called the ‘Theo ending’, where the little boy playing the little boy actor playing Theo comes back onstage after the regular ending and hints to the audience that maybe one day he would be ready to take Pippin’s place. It’s really disturbing and it works really well. Here, they did a similar thing that made me think of the Theo ending, something I’ll call the Fleance ending because oh my god, that name. So one of the witches’ prophesies was that Banquo’s heirs would inherit the throne after Macbeth is king, yet after Macbeth’s death, og King Duncan’s eldest son, Malcolm, is rightfully crowned. So when does Banquo’s son Fleance get in on that to fulfill the prophesy? Usually audiences just assume that at some point, the crown falls to him and his line. Here, however, Fleance comes onstage while Malcolm is being crowned, and stares at him, and then draws his sword menacingly. Hella spine-chilling, especially from someone named Fleance.
All in all, it was a very solid production, acting-wise. All the stuff that’s supposed to be in there – the text, the acting, the ability to be creative with stage directions like that ending – was good. It was the unnecessary bits – the modern costumes, the modern ‘setting’ that was half-assed, the gd m*f*ing timer that should have been cut from day 1 of rehearsals – that was extraneous and hurt the production, I feel. Yet there’s only so much damage you can do to a show like this, so overall I still enjoyed it verily.
Ugh that person coughing behind us was really annoying. It was like nonstop. Also I still can’t believe my dad was the one talking. Otherwise it was fine I think! I guess people who go to Shakespeare don’t need to check their phones every ten minutes.
The toilets for the mezzanine/dress circle NEVER had a line! It was epic! So well designed. I can’t say for the stalls.
It’s about 2 hours and 20 minutes with intermission, so it’s a pretty short show, actually. One of the ushers told me, when I asked about the length, ‘Oh we love Macbeth! It’s so short!’