By Carol Rocamora . . .
“By the pricking of my thumbs/Something wicked this way comes.”
Indeed, it has. Polly Findlay’s Macbeth, now live-streaming on BroadwayHD, is a “wickedly” entertaining production, if such words dare describe the bloody story of Shakespeare’s ambitious Thane of Glamis who murders his way to the throne of Scotland.
One can only imagine the pressure a director at the Royal Shakespeare Company must feel, when approaching a 400-year-old classic like Macbeth and infusing it with a fresh view. And yet “fresh” is a word that aptly describes her approach.
Findlay’s most provocative choice is the casting of three little girls (age seven or thereabouts), clad in red polka dot pajamas, to play the famous trio of witches that prophesy Macbeth’s spectacular rise and fall. If they weren’t so adorable, you’d think them horrifying as they pop up out of nowhere on the dark shadowy stage, leading Macbeth down the bloody path to war and self-destruction. Those creepy little demons are also very adept at changing scenery, too – wheeling in a monstrous table for the great banquet scene, where Banquo’s bloody ghost appears before a deranged Macbeth, who had him murdered only a few scenes ago. (The witches are played alternatingly by Eve Hatz, Lauren Heaps, Elizabeth Kaleniuk, Aleksandra Penlington, Phoebe Davis, and Abigail Walter).
An equally provocative choice is the staging of this towering tragedy on a stark, empty thrust stage, with no fixed scenic elements save a water cooler against a side brick wall (designed by Fly Davies). Scene titles taken from lines in the text – like “WHAT’S DONE CANNOT BE UNDONE” – splash across a black upstage scrim, along with a digital clock (1: 51: 51), announcing the countdown until the tyrant Macbeth’s murder spree comes to its foretold end. It’s a mesmerizing effect – along with the original music (Rupert Cross) and thunderous sounds (designed by Christopher Shutt) that shake the entire theatre between scenes, crescendoing to a deafening fortissimo during the final, surreal battle scene. (Lizzie Powell’s lightning effects add to those frightening moments).
This sense of immediacy, created by the collaborating design team, provides a perfect opportunity for the power-mad protagonists to command center stage. As Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Christopher Eccleston and Niamh Cusack offer the most energetic – and yes, enthusiastic – version of this power couple that I’ve ever witnessed. Their high-pitched, high-speed performances are charismatic, and they deliver their soliloquies with such clarity, intensity and urgency that the audience in the first row (surrounding the stage on three sides) were holding on to their seats. (At one point, Lady M even stretches out her bloody hand to one audience member during the “Out, out, damned spot,” soliloquy, inviting her to hold it.)
Other notable performances include a commanding David Acton as Duncan, and a very touching Edward Bennett as Macduff who mourns the murder of his lovely wife (Mariam Haque) and children with simplicity and dignity. As Malcolm (son of King Duncan whom Macbeth murdered), Luke Newberry gives a heartfelt performance as a brave young man who must come of age before his time.
Throughout this spell-binding production, filled with surprising theatrical flourishes, a silent actor sits upstage next to that water cooler. (At one point, he plays the Porter). In his hand, he holds a piece of chalk, and as Macbeth continues on his slaughtering spree, the Porter makes a mark on the brick wall for every murder he commits. By the end of the production, there are hundreds of white slashes against the red backdrop. It’s an arresting, unforgettable sight.
Meanwhile, as we slowly emerge from the painful, political events of the last weeks, Shakespeare’s lines from this prophetic play echo in our ears:
“Our country sinks beneath the yoke… It bleeds…”
And, finally: “Alas, poor country, almost afraid to know itself…”
Macbeth, by Shakespeare, directed by Polly Findlay, a Royal Shakespeare Company production, now streaming on www.BroadwayHD.com