Review - Macbeth starring Christopher Eccleston at the Barbican Theatre

Will Longman
Will Longman

As part of the Royal Shakespeare Company's season in-residence at the Barbican Theatre in London, they're bringing three plays from Stratford-upon-Avon to London. That season starts with Polly Findlay's production of Macbeth, which premiered earlier this year. But by overusing horror devices to attempt to instil a real sense of terror into the play, it becomes predictable and bland.

Director Polly Findlay tries to throw us in at the deep end, screeching strings welcoming the three witches. The three children dressed in red dresses and plaits would look the part as horror movie protagonists, but despite some clever illusions, their childish giggles and nursery rhymes do little to spook.

It's not the only choice that doesn't quite live up to its intention. From the point Macbeth and Lady Macbeth decide to do the deed and murder the king, a digital clock begins to count down two hours, like a ticking time bomb on Macbeth's life. While it ties into the play's conclusion - as a new king is crowned in Malcolm and the clock begins again - the payoff is far from satisfying: a distracting two-hour device to make the point that power is cyclical is overkill.

Christopher Eccleston takes on the lead role, and while his moments of arrogance are commanding, he gets lost in trying to recite his lines rather than perform them. He reads each line as if we know what's coming, his emotions and breakdown seeming forced. His opposite Niamh Cusack's cunning Lady Macbeth is quite sinister, but there is little connection between the two characters.

As the pair plan the murder of King Duncan, they bafflingly spend it almost entirely on their knees, which simply isn't how humans react to pragmatic situations. It's over-acted, and makes the audience very aware they are watching a play.

What becomes incessant about this production is the forced tension Findlay tries to bring about the play, with sliding strings and occasional appearances of the child witches. They end up feeling pretty lazy, when they work - during the performance I saw, the stage went completely dark during one of Macbeth's final monologue, leading to a confusing, mistimed sequence that was meant to have Eccleston appear in different locations around the stage between flashes, but instead we saw (and heard) him running to position.

As the clock counts down to Macbeth's demise, the final fight between the king and Macduff is a pretty lacklustre affair. They flow through the fight, and while we know who comes out on top, there's no grit to it. They predict every move slickly and use the entire stage for the sake of it, removing all threat from the encounter.

In trying to add more layers to the play, these horror tactics have been employed. But unfortunately, they fall flat and result in a tepid, sometimes dizzying production.  

Macbeth is at the Barbican until 18th January 2018. 

Macbeth tickets are available now.  

Originally published on

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