Review: RSC's Macbeth renders fine ingredients - including Christopher Eccleston - into a flat concoction

Niamh Cusack as Lady Macbeth and Christopher Eccleston as Macbeth
Niamh Cusack as Lady Macbeth and Christopher Eccleston as Macbeth

Peter Ormerod reviews Macbeth, starring Christopher Ecclestone and Niamh Cusack and presented by the RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford

Oh dear. It should really be harder to get this wrong than to get it right. We have Christopher Eccleston, a man surely born to play Macbeth. We have Niamh Cusack, who is evidently more than capable of imbuing Lady Macbeth with the requisite tautness, steel, twisted warmth and cold anxiety. And we have a play which fair gallops along, powered by some of Shakespeare's finest poetry and great scene after great scene. And yet what we have here is an example of anti-alchemy: the ingredients are of the purest gold, yet together they make something sadly dull.

It could be argued that the production was always going to struggle to meet the high expectations surrounding it: the show is pretty much sold-out throughout its six-month run. Perhaps such high hopes serve to magnify the flaws. And it begins with some promise: the witches here are young children (played on this occasion by Elizabeth Kaleniuk, Aleksandra Penlington and Abigail Walter); they do well, and there is an almost automatic creepiness to them in their nightwear as they caress their dolls and chant with squeaky menace. But the opening scene turns out to be pretty much the high point.

The staging appears to borrow its aesthetic from an especially soulless conference centre. The stage is flanked on one side by a pot plant and on the other by a water cooler; it is an antiseptic and unprepossessing space, dominated by a grey background. This would be less of a problem were the sterility ever undercut with a believable, maniacal bloodlust, or a mystical eeriness; but its effect is suffocating, sapping air and breath and life from the production. Then there is the curious idea of projecting various significant phrases from the text onto the backdrop, to crass and bald effect; it is a heavy-handed approach which reflects the production's regrettable lack of nuance.

And there is worse to come. The idea of changing sets to suggest changes of scene is evidently a tad passe; here, changes of location are signalled chiefly by words such as GLAMIS or ENGLAND appearing above the stage. We learn that some scenes are set after others thanks to the word LATER being displayed in huge letters. There is an unhappy reliance on telling, rather than showing.

Then, just when one might hope the well of bad ideas had been exhausted, we are presented with The Big Digital Clock. This counts down the two hours until Macbeth's death. It is presumably intended to suggest fate and inevitability, and to highlight the play's preoccupation with time. But to the viewer, it just makes the play feel much longer than it is; call it the watched-pot effect, if you like. The bizarrely unconvincing fight that leads to Macbeth's demise seems prolonged just to make sure the deadline is hit, and then everyone looks a bit pleased with themselves for doing so.

One can only suppose that these missteps must have taken their toll on the actors. The talent here is stellar; the performances often flatline. Eccleston should excel in his role; after all, he embodies a bruised, questioning, uncomfortable masculinity, and needs convince no one of his ability (although, a tad snootily, the programme omits Doctor Who from his list of television credits). And yet here he seems desperate for it all to be over as soon as possible, racing through his lines, which sometimes appear to trip him up. This majestic poetry is often handled with sadly little care. He still impresses at times with his physicality, but it is hard to discern any real internal torment or depth of emotion or psychological conflict; he is never either quite the innocent flower nor the serpent under 't. One can only assume his portrayal will improve markedly over the course of this run, as long as the production allows it; he is surely too good for it not to.

Much of the same is unfortunately true of Niamh Cusack's Lady Macbeth. Again, Cusack is an undeniably tremendous actor, but still seems to be a little way from nailing her character. Rather than plumbing the depths of her femininity, this Lady Macbeth is a disappointingly shallow creature, all rather one-note. The play relies on the intensity and passion of her relationship with Macbeth; yet here they could be mistaken for strangers. The production is almost entirely deficient in real drama, and this may be much of the reason why.

It is something of a relief now to turn to the show's more praiseworthy aspects. The Porter, played by Michael Hodgson, is by some way the best thing about it. He is eerie and weird with a perfectly tuned subtlety; he is funny, creepy and wise, and the performance really deserves a completely different play to be written around it. Also impressive is Raphael Sowole as a lovable, big and brotherly Banquo, while Edward Bennett's Macduff is commanding and intelligent.

Everyone deserves better from all this, to the point where there is a temptation to seek excuses for all involved, including the director, Polly Findlay, who is usually so adroit. But it is hard to avoid a sense of disappointment. With so little real heft, it ends up signifying nothing, without ever really bothering even with the sound and fury.