The first time I saw Macbeth I was eleven, and so scared in the nights that followed that I had to sleep on my parents’ bedroom floor. Yeah, I’m putting that out there, and have to say that the experience almost ten years later is virtually identical (substitute parents with bemused housemates and you get the picture). I was lucky enough to nab tickets to the RSC’s latest production of The Scottish Play, and have to say I haven’t been so blown away by a piece of theatre in a long time. Entering the auditorium the audience is greeted by a stage strewn with the destruction it will soon contain – broken statues, shattered glass and rubble all contribute to a very unsettling atmosphere even before the curtain’s lifted. The extent to which we as the audience were made to ‘participate’ in the play’s darkest moments made for an uncomfortable sense of our own complicity: actors addressed the crowd, hidden figures in dark robes lurked before leaping out and ringing bells and gongs. Director Michael Boyd has created a perfect blend of chaotic noise beside moments of ethereal, pin-drop silence. There’s also a degree of ‘the shock factor’ inherent to this performance: instead of three witches, the opening scenes witness three young children hanging from ceiling cables, carrying dolls representative of the characters on stage and frequently interrupting rational speech with eerie, high-pitched screams.
I was utterly struck by Jonathon Slinger as the lead role, particularly in the second act, with his impeccable handling of Macbeth’s subtle descent into deeper realms of tyranny and, ultimately, the insanity that comes to claim him. Aislín Mcguckin was a disappointing Lady Macbeth – my idea of this most fantastic of Shakespearean women is that when she walks onto the stage for the first time, you shrink a little in your seat, and I didn’t. Scenes in which she attempts to cover her husband’s rants at the banquet scene were better, and I think she works well as a character who deceives, but not the play’s ultimate villain. Actually, the star of this show is Aidan Kelly, whose intensely poignant portrayal of Macduff carried the second act in its emotive power. His agonising speech over the murder of his family ensured the audience shared in his anguish, and made the eventual overthrow of Macbeth that much more cathartic.
Throughout there is a strong sense of the nature of “diseased minds”, of the potential for human beings to turn Thoroughly Bad. For the first time I was made aware of the sheer speed of the play, something Boyd does well to accelerate further through an onstage ‘chorus’ of sombre string instruments coupled with harsh, sudden lighting changes. Unlike Hamlet, for example, which sees the ultimate in procrastination, Macbeth flies along with the speed of a runaway freight train and drags us along for the grisly ride. This is a complete triumph: run to Stratford immediately.