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A CurtainUp London Review

"By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes."

— Witch
Niamh Cusack as Lady Macbeth , Christopher Eccleston as Macbeth and Carlo Braithwaite as Fleance
(Photo: Richard Davenport)
One questions whether if Macbeth were not on the schools' examination syllabus it would be so frequently performed. The Royal Shakespeare Company brings its Stratford upon Avon version to London's Barbican Theatre. Remember this is the theatre built to the RSC's specifications but which auditorium design they cast off in Stratford for a more intimate venue. So that is the first issue here at the Barbican, the vastness of the stage.

Fly Davis' design has a balcony playing area above the stage on which to stage King Duncan (David Acton)'s court. It works well as a separation device from the discussions of Lord and Lady Macbeth. The more I see it, the more convinced I am that Lady Macbeth (Niamh Cusack) doesn't have enough time to warm up before she is talking about dashing her baby's brains. Her lord, Macbeth (Christopher Eccleston) is almost impassive. We see little more expression when the blood of battle has been wiped off his face than before when it erased his features. True he has the physical solidity of a war monger, a field soldier but too little that we can relate to which would make us care about a previously good man's fall to the desire of unvaulted ambition.

Polly Findlay's production employs curious child witches, little girls here in red party frocks, straight plaits, white tights and patent shoes. Individually their diction is clear but as with so much multiple chanting by adult actors, the thankfully well known words cannot be heard when they are spoken together. As it is these witches who seem to plant the idea of his bloody career progression inside Macbeth's head, we ask where they have come from? Why little girls? There is a piece in the programme about babies as demons in the film industry of horror films like The Exorcist and The Omen. So is it demon child witches which have seduced Macbeth or is it a small step from killing your enemies in battle to murdering a king and then your best friend and then the babes of your enemy?

This is a lavish royal court and we see a full coronation of Macbeth and his wife, with velvet cloak and ermine trim. Remember in Shakespeare's day there had been a hundred years of the crown changing hands in the course of battle with hardly any monarch peacefully succeeding his father but ending in 1485 with the Tudor ascent to the throne. . Lady Macbeth too makes uses of her royal connections with fashion designers for some splendid evening wear. Her madness scene sees her as frenetic as in the beginning but shining a torch randomly into the darkness to express her terror. She scrubs her hands to try to remove the spotted figments of her imagination but like much of this play conscience is a psychological consequence rather than a physical manifestation.

Edward Bennett's portly Macduff loses his family to dreadful murders and Macduff and Malcolm convince us that there are good people left to look after Scotland. After all Shakespeare is writing for the Scottish king James Stuart. Macbeth's confidence that the trees of Dunsinane cannot move and the prediction that he cannot be killed by "one of woman born" probably represents how little gynaecological information was known in Shakespeare's time.

On the night I saw it, so many of the audience were schoolboys presumably from single sex schools, we can see how this play is assumed to be a favourite of adolescent boys with its themes of war and horror. No gender swaps here, yet! The RSC's production is a good starting point for those studying Macbeth and will long be remembered, not for reasons other than for the child witches.

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Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Polly Findlay
Starring: Christopher Eccleston, Niamh Cusack, Raphael Sowole, David Acton, Edward Bennett, Luke Newberry, Michael Hodgson
With: Tim Samuels, Bally Gill, Tom Padley, Mariam Haque, Donna Banya, Afolabi Alli, Raif Clarke, Josh Finan, Stevie Basaula, John Macaulay, Kate Britain, Paul Dodds
Witches: Ceyda Ali, Tia Sofia Begh, Miranda Beinart-Smith, Delilah Bennett-Cardy, Natalie Berry, Halle Cassell, Emily Dao, Andie Jordan, Aaylia Rose
Children: Carlo Braithwaite, Taye Junaid-Evans, Tyrell Russell-Matthew, Haru Aggarwal, Alexander Molony, Jaden Oshenye
Design: Fly Davis
Sound Design: Christopher Shutt
Composer: Rupert Cross
Lighting Design: Lizzie Powell
Movement: Aline David
Fight Director: Kate Waters
Barbican Movement Director: Anna Morrissey
Running time: Two Hours 25 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 020 7638 8891
Booking to 18th January 2019
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 23rd October 2018 performance at the Barbican Theatre, Silk Street, London EC2Y 8DS (Tube: Moorgate/Barbican)
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