Review by Raphael Kohn
There’s no shortage of productions of The Scottish Play in the UK at the moment, with the Donmar Warehouse bringing David Tennant back to his Shakespearean roots and a ‘warehouse’ production with Ralph Fiennes playing in Liverpool, London, Edinburgh and Washington DC. Throw into the mix a new production, directed by Wils Wilson at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s flagship Royal Shakespeare Theatre and the end result is certainly a very Macbeth-heavy theatre world. Could this Macbeth kill the competition, reigning as the best production, or would it be slain by others?
And so, we receive a particularly odd production at the RSC, determined to prove its uniqueness, but at times not managing to keep all of its ideas together. Where’s it set? I simply don’t know – the costuming would suggest the past, the props would suggest some kind of blend between the near past and a post-apocalyptic alternate world. Macbeth itself, set in the 16th century and following the titular character as, spurred on by an encounter with three witches and propelled on by his wife, lusts after power, eventually committing regicide in order to claim the title of King for himself, before having his own crown taken by another.
With such themes of murder and supernaturalism, it seems Wilson at times wanted to dive into the realm of horror with her production, with a mostly black, grey and red colour scheme and jumpscare-like sound effects. And it works at times, with some truly atmospheric scenes properly chilling me to the core. But much of the time, it just seemed too odd, too abstract and too strange for my liking – an opening of the three witches climbing out of a rubbery slit in the floor and writhing on the floor certainly set the tone of the play, but it just didn’t quite gel with me. Kai Fischer’s lighting manages to balance this as much as possible, utilising the contrast of light and dark very well to offset some of the stranger ideas at play.
Georgia McGuinness’ set, mostly bare, with a few rocks and items scattered around certainly fulfils the high expectations one can now set for productions at the RSC. Despite the slight underuse of a beautiful rain feature that only gets two uses out of it, the set is atmospheric and excellent, with hair-like strands hanging at the back of the stage behind which the musicians assemble and Kai Fischer’s lighting streams through.
Leading the entirely Scottish cast is Reuben Joseph as Macbeth, full of bristling intensity and enough toxic masculinity to outweigh an entire all-boys boarding school. Highlighting the violent aspects to the maximum as he holds his wife’s neck in his hand, Joseph is a unique Macbeth with the power to lead the large cast and the talent to hold his own when alone on the stage. He might be a trifle younger than most Macbeths I’ve seen – no problem in itself, as his relative youth brings out an insecurity I’ve not seen before in the role, and it’s excellent.
Opposite Joseph is Valene Kane as Lady Macbeth, whose desperation for power is clear in her performance. Despite being a touch too hyperactive during her more fiery moments – my favourite speech (‘Come, you spirits’) became slightly too excitable as to lose the intimate intensity of the moment – she is still a formidable Lady Macbeth who matches Joseph perfectly in their pairing.
Much has been made of the rewritten ‘Porter’ scene for this production. Normally the ‘comic relief’ of this tragedy, the RSC has brought on board Stewart Lee to rewrite the scene as a stand-up routine, performed to perfection by Alison Peebles to rip into pop culture figures, the Conservative Party and more, and there was a fantastic moment of audience interaction where some unfortunately-situated GCSE students in the front row on Press Night found themselves the unexpected centre of attention as Peebles made jokes about the way this play is commonly studied in GCSE lessons. It was a fine four minutes of comedy – but tonally it didn’t quite fit with Wilson’s otherwise dark and hazy production, although separate from the shadows of Wilson’s Macbeth it was an excellent piece of writing.
In true RSC form, live music accompanies the play with Alasdair MacRae’s compositions elevating the atmosphere immensely. In time with the witches’ speech, the brass players blow not quite notes into the instruments, creating a sonically striking sound against the speech of the performers. In between scenes, dramatic dirges (and I use this word not as a negative) punctuate the action, while a bagpipe-led melody accompanying the coronation of Macbeth affirms the Scottish setting.
We can always count on the RSC to produce productions that challenge, excite and innovate, finding new meaning in Shakespeare’s masterpieces. Perhaps this Macbeth isn’t the finest of them all, but there are brilliant ideas in this production that don’t quite get the exploration they need. There’s a mix of spookiness, horror and humour that don’t quite gel this time, but the ideas are sound enough for a good evening of Shakespearean entertainment.
Macbeth plays at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 14th October 2023. Tickets are available from https://www.rsc.org.uk/macbeth/tickets
Photos by Marc Brenner