Yesterday I took my fifteen year old granddaughter into Manchester for an evening’s entertainment. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Macbeth was being transmitted live to a cinema screen at Home, the theatre and cinema complex in Manchester. As she has been studying Macbeth as part of her GCSE English course, it seemed like a good idea to take her along when a friend suggested that a group of us should go to see the production.
So off we went on the tram to Manchester, the teenager determinedly reading Harry Potter and resisting attempts to make proper conversation. It’s good to see her reading, and she does read a lot, but it would have been nice to have a bit more chat. She opened up a bit more over pizza. Some of it was a diatribe about her younger brother - they niggle and pick at each other constantly - but she also revealed a surprising enthusiasm for Mary Beard, whose feminist principles she admires and whose book, ”Women and Power”, she has just bought.
One of the group of friends we met to go to the production was also reading “Women and Power”: cue a brief discussion of feminism before going to see a play where a woman with no real power is a driving force.
And eventually we went into the packed cinema, so packed that we ended up scattered in little groups wherever seats were available.
The play was done in modern dress, which was fine, although we did wonder how you married soldiers on modern battle fatigues and bulletproof vests with the use of swords.
Christopher Eccleston was a rugged northern Macbeth. Some reviews went on a bit about him being forever Doctor Who, but as I have never seen him in that role (indeed have not seen Doctor Who at all since my son was a teenager more years ago than either of us care to think about), this did not bother me. In fact, I mostly just remember him from the 1990s TV series “Our Friends in the North” and, at around the same time, quite literally bumping into him in Waterstone’s bookshop on Deansgate in Manchester.
The witches were three little blonde girls, making me think of John Wyndham’s “The Midwich Cuckoos”, filmed as “Village of the Damned” but reminding others more of “The Shining”. I thought it worked reasonably well. My friend, a former English Literature teacher and film buff, declared that if children are to be used in such roles they should be made really frightening by giving them blank face masks. And I suppose it may have reduced the power of the witches words, as one critic commented:
“Since this a play to which children, or the lack of them, is central, the three witches are incarnated in the form of young girls: a nice idea that underscores a point made by film critic Peter Bradshaw in the programme that Macbeth is the first horror film, but it means the witches’ ominous words go for little.”
Niamh Cusack, described by one critic as “unusually likeable if scamperingly neurotic” Lady Macbeth, was convincingly good until she asked one of the front row audience to take her hand, leading to a moment of blank incomprehension. (Note to self: avoid sitting on the front row in any theatre!) However, her descent from enthusiastic, driven ambition to twitching, unable-to-keep-still nervous breakdown was good.
The drunken porter, constantly sitting or standing at one side of the stage, kept a tally of deaths, chalked onto the wall, quite a good touch, but his almost pantomime-like direction to the hired assassins to do in Banquo and Fleance, a lot of gesticulating and miming hammer blows behind Banquo, and later pointing MacDuff in the direction of MacBeth seemed a bit unnecessary.
On the whole, we had a good evening but came away mildly disappointed, especially by the final, unconvincing fight scene.
Published reviews I have looked at this morning seem to share our mixed feelings about the production:-
“... the production bulges with bright ideas, I sometimes feel that Findlay is not simply directing the play but also delivering a lecture on it.”
“This is a lively production in which there has been much throwing about of brains, yet it all too often advertises its ideas instead of allowing them to emerge subliminally.”
The teenager, who knows the play quite well, declared herself a little annoyed with gender changes of some characters and with what she regarded as tinkering with the script. On the whole, though, she enjoyed her evening out.