Rather unexpectedly, this season the RSC has provided a treat for fans of classic cinematic horror, in an energetic, unapologetic homage to the genre, and in particular to Stanley Kubrick's 1980 adaptation of Stephen King's novel The Shining.
It's a great fit for a play not dominated by mind-bendingly beautiful language in the same way as some of Shakespeare’s works. Macbeth's appeal lies principally in the psychological but also, crucially, the sensational, and director Polly Findlay has embraced this by placing the play firmly in a genre which comes with a host of tropes extremely familiar to a modern audience. It's very effective. The play's supernatural elements sit easily in this context, the well-trodden path of the tension between external and internal horrors offering a way into the malevolence of evil, both in spirit and human form, as an essential part of our condition. There’s no need to wrestle with the significance of the Porter when the surreal and disorientating is a ready component of horror - and in this case the Porter is given a very potent stand-out role of his own. I felt I could approach the play without feeling obliged to tease out a more subtle meaning, without seeking to know something deeper about the play and the intentions of both writer and director.
If you're taking liberties with what some consider the essential gravitas of Shakespeare, it pays - literally, I suppose - to have a big name in the lead role, and Christopher Ecclestone is a wonderful choice for a soldierly, no-nonsense Macbeth. I’ve seen the role made into a thing of absolute beauty in a great 'Shakespearean actor' style, but Ecclestone’s Macbeth is far closer to how I imagine him: earthy, amused, both incredulous and credulous, and the direction he takes makes sense. Niamh Cusack as Lady Macbeth spares no amount of hand-wringing, playing the visible signs of a mind disintegrating for all they're worth. Once again, within the horror genre, there’s not necessarily a need for great subtlety, and Cusack's conspicuous grief works well. And if it ever seems overplayed? Well, the flipside of the horror genre is fun - even slapstick -, and what can seem laid on with a trowel is often actually applied with quite a careful hand.
The supporting cast on this occasion were solid but short on great verse speakers, David Acton as
Much is made in this production of the theme of time. At the crucial moment of the Macbeths' crime a digital clock lights up on stage, and begins ticking down inexorably to the now inevitable conclusion. Their act of regicide, betraying their sacred obligations both as hosts and vassals, decides their fate. By their act, the Macbeths lock themselves in with the monsters as time runs out in frenzy of ambition, killing, and guilt. Why is Macbeth thought of as cursed? It’s dangerous because it’s about the evil we do to ourselves, which is the most inescapable kind.
I think the way to assess this production is to accept that everything within it is deliberate and carefully thought out, from the sensationalised delivery to the horror clichés to the gawky bit-players, and through this lens it's a great success; playful, inventive, fast-paced, daring - and hitting that elusive sweet-spot of creepily amusing. Monsters, real and psychological, hallucinated or all too human, coexist here in a way which seems natural and atavistically recognisable. It makes a case for this being the contemporary version of the style in which the play was intended to be presented, and suggests a cheeky interpretation of Shakespeare, still in the process of creation, with the range, reach and vision, like Stanley Kubrick, to become a master across genres.