Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford-Upon-Avon – until 14th October 2023
Reviewed by Amarjeet Singh
Wils Wilson’s production of Macbeth opens with mist and mystery. Dead birds dropping from the sky, shadows, and shrouded movements, and then, the appearance of the weird sisters. Witches which don’t come much weirder than this. Birthed upon the stage in the most unhuman way, the combination of sound, light and staccato motions create an eerie and troubled scene. Haunting, it sets you up for a cracking ride into a raw, random but mostly entertaining rendition of Macbeth.
This final offering in Shakespeare’s first folio, tells the tale of the General’s bloody rise to power and eventual tragic downfall. The Scots have successfully defended their country and their beloved King Duncan against a treacherous invasion. Returning triumphant, Macbeth, Thane of Glamis and his friend Banquo happen upon three witches who foretell that Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor, and one day King. They further prophecies that Banquo’s descendants will be kings. The warriors don’t at first believe the witches, but upon their return they find out that Duncan has rewarded Macbeth’s bravery on the battlefield by making him Thane of Cawdor. This causes Macbeth to fantasize about usurping the king. Aided by his wife, the tormented Lady Macbeth, Macbeth begins to succumb to his ambition. They murder Duncan and frame his guards. Duncan’s sons, Malcom and Donalbain, thinking they may be murdered next, flee. Macbeth is made king, and because they fled, Duncan’s sons become the prime suspects in their father’s murder.
Knowing of the witches’ prophecy, Banquo is suspicious of Macbeth, and the predicted declaration that Banquo’s line will reign, makes Banquo a threat. Macbeth hires two murderers to kill Banquo and his son, but his son escapes. Macbeth is haunted by Banquo’s ghost, and his subsequent behavior makes all, including Macduff, Thane of Fife, wary of him. They begin to think of Macbeth as a tyrant and thus travel to England to support Malcolm in his effort to raise an army against him.
Macbeth revisits the three witches to learn more about his fate. They show him three apparitions who tell Macbeth to beware of Macduff, but also that no “man born of woman” can defeat him and that he will rule until Birnam Wood marches to Dunsinane. Since all men are born of women and trees can’t move, Macbeth takes this to mean he’s invincible. Blinded by ambition, guilt, arrogance, and grief Macbeth unravels as the witches’ predictions are realised.
This offering of Macbeth is hypnotic and moving. It has flashes of brilliance and had me on the edge of my seat at key moments, but unfortunately some parts jarred. Most notably was the Porter scene which had been re-imagined as a stand-up set. The script, written by comedian Stewart Lee, left me unsure of what to make of this modern interpretation. The Porter arriving on stage, carrying an electric buzzer, like a combination of Billy the puppet from the ‘Saw’ movies and Beetlejuice, left me baffled. Performed superbly, with laughs a plenty, it was highly entertaining, but it knocked me out of the momentum completely. The electric buzzer and the scene lost the message to the mirth.
However, back to what worked, and there was plenty of it. Kai Fischer, Claire Windsor and Alasdair Macrae combined moody lighting and stunning sound, to create a rugged and ethereal landscape. Employing booming brass and bagpipes with stunning Celtic vocals, these carried us through the tale and amped up the eerie to the max. Julia Cheng’s movement and choreography, and fights by Kaitlin Howard added so many layers and dimensions to this production. On occasion there is the feel of a Beijing opera, with strong, powerful thrusts and moves, and this was echoed subtly in the design of the costumes, although tartan was still aplenty. There were clever scenes with background players moving in slow motion or being still whilst key performers delivered soliloquies, and players moved in reverse, with fluid dance and acrobatic rolls. These all added a cinematic quality to this production.
Reuben Joseph was an incredible Macbeth. He led us through his demise in a powerful but skilled way to balance the protagonists emotional and physical shifts. He was a joy to behold. Conflicted and tortured he indeed strutted and fretted for all the right reasons. Valene Kane was a skittish and flighty Lady Macbeth, a contrast to the plotting, devious spouse in other productions. Anna Russell-Martin gave a strong performance as Banquo. Shyvonne Ahmmad was an exceptional Malcom and created magic with George Anton as Macduff. For all I said about the Porter, Alison Peebles delivered her piece with aplomb. Amber Sylvia Edwards, Eildh Loan and Dylan Read were terrifyingly terrific as the trio of witches. The cast as a whole, collaborated to make this production beguiling and thoroughly entertaining.
With murdered puppets, waterfalls of rain, flying witches, flickering chandeliers and speeches which are delivered respectfully and at a pace enabling us to both appreciate their beauty and meaning, Wilson’s Macbeth is a play about choices, bold choices. The choices the characters make and their dramatic outcomes, and the choice, I hope you make, to see this spectacular production.