Macbeth at the Barbican: Christopher Eccleston is a Macbeth with PTSD ★★★

This accessible Shakespeare production is a bit gimmicky and strange - but also fun and intriguing, says David Butcher

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 Do you like your Macbeths steeped in dread and doom? If so, move along. This RSC production might not be for you. Director Polly Findlay and designer Fly Davis conjure chilling effects and a fair smattering of of “direst cruelty” but the overall vibe is like one of those arch horror movies that shocks you one minute and makes you cackle with laughter the next.

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 The witches here are three young girls dressed in neat red dresses and white tights – a sinister horror-film trope. They can appear out of nowhere, chanting or laughing, and their prophecies have the air of a playground game. It is one that turns ugly for Macbeth and Banquo, who meet the witches not so much on a blasted heath as in a corporate atrium, all sharp lines and with a watercooler in one corner.

 Next to the watercooler sits a janitor figure, the Porter, who observes the action throughout and chalks up a tally on a blackboard each time someone dies – i.e. quite often. It’s one visual device among many (too many, probably). After Duncan’s murder, an LED clock above the stage lights up and starts counting down from two hours towards zero, marking the time Macbeth’s destiny has allotted. It’s a bold idea – if a smidge distracting – and the read-out hits zero at the moment Macduff ends the king’s life. Clever stuff, but what does it add?

 A grab-bag of other effects – slithering strings, glitter showers, the words NOW and LATER projected behind the action, electrical buzzes and glitches, a second raised stage behind glass – all add to a sense of a world that is “brain-sickly” and “heat-oppressed”. In that context the performances of Christopher Eccleston as Macbeth and Niamh Cusack as his monstrous other half are suitably manic. There are times when they jerk around like puppets, wide-eyed and caught in the grip of their “black and deep desires”. 

 Eccleston delivers the soliloquys manfully, like a bluff soldier confronted with stuff he hasn’t trained for – whether an “air-drawn dagger” or PTSD from too much wet work. But near the end, his “Tomorrow and tomorrow” speech is beautifully done, sitting on the edge of the stage in a fug of cynicism, resigned to the fact life is a “tale told by an idiot”.

 From there the tragic climax of the final fight is – deliberately, I imagine – sabotaged with broad sight gags: when Macduff, bent on revenge, nearly heads off stage in the wrong direction, the Porter coughs a pointed “Ahem!” and jerks a thumb in the direction of where he’ll find the tyrant. And when that big red clock hits zero and Macbeth is killed, the Porter gets a cheap laugh from re-setting his own watch.

 So – gimmicky? Yes. A bit scattered? Certainly. But if some productions of the play feel darkly forbidding, this one is accessible. It is even – and how often can you say this about Macbeth? –  fun.

David Butcher

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Macbeth is at the Barbican until 18th January 2019 – visit the theatre’s website here.