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Not Your King James' Macbeth Hot

Tue Sorensen
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Written by Tue Sorensen     June 27, 2007    
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Not Your King James' Macbeth

Photos: Hugo Glendinning & Stewart Hemley

  • Macbeth
  • by William Shakespeare
  • Royal Shakespeare Company
  • April 11 - July 21, 2007
Acting 5
Costumes 4
Sets 4
Overall 5

"To beguile the time, look like the time," as Lady Macbeth tells her husband. Director Conall Morrison takes her words for a thousand pound as he reverses the originally perceived heroism of Macbeth’s prowess in battle into the core conflict of the play. In this production, the problem that gives rise to all the mystery, witchcraft, ambition, greed and disaster of this play is the horror of War.

The performance opens with a pitched battle. Macbeth kills everything around him; men, women and children alike. He leaves the battlefield with no one breathing. But then three women awake from the dead, see their children slain, and resolve to revenge themselves on Macbeth in order to put their children’s souls to rest. They are the three witches.

All that happens is controlled by the witches. The actresses (Sarah Malin, Mojisola Adebayo and Frances Ashman) double as most of the servants bringing messages to Macbeth. Their hand is in everything that transpires. Besides supernatural creatures, the witches also clearly represent Macbeth’s conscience, tormenting and destroying him. It is a brilliant interpretation of the play—even if the witches have largely taken over Lady Macbeth’s role as the basic propulsion of Macbeth’s ambition and destruction.

There is one scene that I regard as redundant and unnecessary. At one point the witches put Macbeth in a noose and rape him. This scene does nothing except beat us over the head with the ongoing symbolism. Perhaps it is included due to a directorial perception that modern audiences appreciate a certain rawness, but this is a scene that this reviewer could well have done without. Another disturbingly raw scene occurs when Macduff’s third child—yet unborn—is cut from Lady Macduff’s belly. I can accept this scene, only because Macduff subsequently and repeatedly asks about “all” his children, and “all” usually means more than two, so it does make sense that there would be a third.

Despite these few slightly over-the-top instances, this production is a sheer and amazing pleasure to watch. The actors speak clearly and powerfully, with particular note to Patrick O’Kane’s Scottish accent coming through as absolute audio bliss. Nor could I find fault with the acting, which is all-round worthy of what we have come to expect from the Royal Shakespeare Company, even with half the cast (including O’Kane) being RSC debutantes. As one might expect, O’Kane is especially capable in the title role, supplying a performance that highlights every one of the classic features of his character, from dangerousness and strength, to doubt and confusion. And how chillingly he does scowl!

The set and costumes are fairly spartan, without being simple, and work ideally for this small and dark stage, where they both contribute to, without detracting from, the brooding mood.

This is my first experience with a live RSC production, and I am as impressed with it as I could possibly wish to be. In direction and acting alike, it is executed by people who truly know what they are doing, making this play come alive with an intellectual and theatrical energy that I have never before associated with Macbeth. In short, it is the best Macbeth I have seen.

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