Monday, October 31, 2011

Production Review: RSC Macbeth, part 3 of 3; In Which the Production is Actually Reviewed

(Shakespeare Girl's title)
Trouble in Stratford
Royal Shakespeare Company
Seen Tuesday, July 26, Stratford-Upon-Avon
Directed by Michael Boyd, featuring Jonathan Slinger as Macbeth and Aislin McGuckin as Lady Macbeth
In Part 1 and Part 2 of this fine review, I spend a lot of time complaining about the RSC building. But does any of that stuff really matter? Well, I think so, because if I had loved the production - if it had made me feel the way that truly good Shakespeare performances can make you feel - I would not remember the building's problems at all! Nor would my favorite part of the playgoing experience have been watching the swans on the Avon after the play was over. Frankly, if brainless swans, lovely as they are, seem more interesting than a Shakespeare play, there is a real problem. Unfortunately, the performance seemed a little like a mirror of the building - a little rough, unfinished, with some elements that seemed incomplete and inadequately thought through.
Alas, where to begin? The production seemed to be aiming for a creepy, gruesome interpretation, with plenty of blood, ghosts, and gore. All to the good – elements in any Macbeth that I would be strongly in favor of. I also had few complaints with the set; the Macbeths plot their wickedness in a church ruined by iconoclasts, no doubt a representation of their evil reign of Scotland as a similar desecration of all that is holy and right.
A choice that started (in my mind) to veer a little off from the straight and narrow was an absence of Witches; no bubble, bubble, toil and trouble for us. Instead, three female cellists who sat on a platform above the stage throughout the show provided a sort of three-woman mystical presence-thing through dramatic classical music, while the actual lines the witches say (Hail, Thane of Cawdor! etc.) were taken by three creepy little children. While certainly creative, this choice seemed to me to take away the sense of pure evil that the witches bring to the play; the three female musicians mostly played music that evoked feelings of grief and mourning, making their role as commentators more profound and sympathetic than the malicious witches of the text. And weird children of 8 or 9 years old can seem grotesque and macabre (or just annoying), but simply cannot project the same kind of menace that ADULT weird sisters could bring. This choice served to make the Macbeths seem even more evil without the weight of other wicked characters. It also created strange questions about the time and space continuum within the world of the play– the same three young actors that played the “weird children” later played the MacDuff children IN THE EXACT SAME COSTUMES that they wore as spirits(?) in the forest; they then re-appeared as the GHOSTS of the MacDuffs looking exactly as they did at the beginning….So were they ghosts before they were murdered? What’s the deal?
Witches are scary even when they are not kids
 Starting to get the picture about how this production was jumbled and confusing? But the biggest problem of all was not that the actor who played Ross also stalked around singing Catholic liturgical chant at surprising moments in a remarkable and piercing counter-tenor; nor was it even that the actor portraying Malcolm never diverged – in the whole arc of his development - from a remarkably monotonous tone of slightly deranged despair. This was a big, big problem, as was the depiction of the Porter as a pyromaniac demon of some sort (not kidding). When the director made choices like this, sure, they were weird choices. But the worst affliction of all was that not enough actually happened on stage.
Events and actions moved slower than the viewer’s mind. We looked at the set before the actors even came out and got that message; we picked up a sense of the tone of the production within a few minutes; now give us something else to think about! But no, this didn’t happen, because there was too little action to complement the spoken word. Instead, for the most part the actors seemed to be left to their own devices, perhaps “directed” in this manner: OK actor, at this point I’m going to leave you alone on a bare stage with no props and I just want you to stand there – don’t move around or anything – just stand there talking. It will be really interesting! Note to anyone who ever has or ever will direct a play: this doesn’t work. It’s mean to your actors. Don’t do this.
On the positive side, whenever actual action  - ie planned movement that illuminated the dialogue, meaningful interaction, etc, - did take place on stage, it was often very good (plus the audience would always perk up a bit and act really grateful). The slaughter of the MacDuff family was performed with energy and dispatch, and the Macbeth’s state banquet where Banquo’s ghost returns as a featured guest was also a highlight. That scene was actually directed very cleverly, as it was performed twice: once before the intermission with an actual blood drenched Banquo appearing before Macbeth’s horrified eyes, and again after the interval from the perspective of the banquet guests, with Macbeth gibbering away at something invisible. (Hilariously, the scene involved Banquo stabbing Macbeth with a ghostly sword, causing Macbeth to react as if he were dead. As this took place just before the lights came up for the intermission, a young lady sitting near me, no doubt unfamiliar with the play, took this to mean that the show was over: “What a strange ending!” she exclaimed.)
These were not the only bright spots in an otherwise somewhat dull production; most of the actors (with the exception of the wretched Malcolm) were first-rate, especially Jonathan Slinger as a young, energetic and somewhat insecure Macbeth, and Aislin McGuckin as a beautiful, captivating and ultimately shatteringly fragile Lady Macbeth. This production had so much potential, yet fell short. - In this way, it reminded me of Lady Macbeth's shaming charge to Macbeth:
"Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valour
As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that
Which thou esteem'st the ornament of life,
And live a coward in thine own esteem,

Letting "I dare not" wait upon "I would,"
Like the poor cat i' the adage?"
Basically, what I (and Lady Macbeth) are getting at here is that if you're going to do Shakespeare - if you're going to create theater - then go for it with all your might! I'd rather see a production go all out and "shoot [its] arrow over the house" than hold back or be careful and do nothing and fail in that way. Macbeth is cool. It can be done better. "Screw your courage to the sticking place!"