Macbeth at the Royal Exchange

Macbeth, for me, has never been as attractive as Shakespeare’s other tragedies; there’s something about its emphasis on the supernatural and relatively straight plot which doesn’t feel especially, excitingly Shakespearean. Where I do really feel Shakespeare at work in Macbeth, though, is the play’s overwhelming structural emphasis on the power of suggestion, the power of fiction, the power of theatre. Macbeth is the agent of the witches’ prophecy even as he claims to be the beneficiary (and, later, victim) of it, in a remarkably blatant example of the self-fulfilling prophecy which culminates in his final  willing surrender to the man who he believes is fated to kill him – by the somewhat shaky logic of his being born by Cesarean section meaning he is not ‘of woman born’. In the theatre, this ridicule of fiction’s power to manipulate us if we are gullible enough has intense potential for clever metatheatrical signals, for ironic staging and delivery which points to the audience, implicating them in the eager credulity which is Macbeth’s downfall. But this is a dynamic which, sadly, felt neglected in this production. Its potential was tantalisingly suggested in the spectacle of, for example, the feast at which Banquo’s ghost appears: Lucy Ellinson had Macbeth’s behaviour tread a beautifully convincing line of real and absurd, and the nervous energy which galvanises the scene combined brilliantly with the over-the-top children’s party scenery and Lady Macbeth’s new sequins to gesture towards the instability of Macbeth’s performance of power and of innocence, and the ridiculousness of his naïve and feverish acceptance of the witches’ fiction.

Throughout, there was no absence of spectacle – from the witches’ engagingly melodramatic behaviour to the range of costumery and the opening sound effects – but its potent connection to the plot’s major, lurking theme was never really probed further. A sustained application of what seemed to be the energising principle of the feast scene could have made this performance explosive, but the famous dagger scene, so loaded with metatheatrical potential, was disappointingly flat. Like the witches, the dagger is a figment of fiction, of either Macbeth’s or Shakespeare’s imagination, a figure which ‘marshall’st me’ into a total willingness to kill at the suggestion that that killing is already reality, but there was here no consideration of the witches’ reality in the same light as the obviously imaginary dagger’s.

But whilst the dagger scene’s theatrical potential was left hanging, its emotional reality was characteristic of this production – and impressive. Ellinson’s Macbeth was swaggering, but waveringly so, clearly indicating the performed nature of her bravado. The character rapidly becomes, or is exposed as, fragile and terrified, relying for love, stability, and courage on Lady Macbeth. Initially both consumed by the excitement of the scheme, the one soon becoming pathetic, the other firm and increasingly frustrated – this was a palpably believable couple. Ony Uhiara’s mad, somnambulant Lady Macbeth, trying to wash out that spot in her nightgown, was spectacularly controlled, credibly crazed without shrieking hysterics.

The couple’s authentic emotional interaction felt none the less, in fact all the more, true and, eventually, tragic, because this production’s female Macbeth was, like Queen Duncan, not a result of gender-blind casting but of changes to the script which made both Machiavellis female. On the one hand, the production was thus able to showcase queerness and challenge the heteronormativity of the Shakespeare canon. But, on the other, it erases some of the gender dynamics which are so palpably at play and up for grabs on Shakespeare’s stage and in his thinking. There’s a small part of me which unjustly winces at the substitution of ‘him’ for ‘her’, but I think my ambivalence towards this switch goes deeper than the objection of a textual purist with no sensitivity to the representational necessities of bringing Shakespeare to the modern stage. Both Macbeth and Queen Duncan, especially at the opening, are, if not pretty masculine, at least androgynous, so that the substitution of soldiers for soldieresses does little to take apart the overwhelmingly masculine world of the battlefield and the Scottish court. And why this particular selection, this particular reversal? Whilst I appreciate the problem of reversing one of few Shakespearean female roles, the fixity of Lady Macbeth’s gender in amongst the switches felt to me like an unconscious unwillingness to imagine a man reaching the peaks of both cold calculation and hysterical madness which this infamous woman achieves.

Such big casting choices and textual changes raise a lot of questions around the already vexed and complicated and ambivalent gender relations in the play. What does it mean for Macbeth then to be ‘a man’ once he commits the murder, when both the person egging him on and the man himself are female? Does Lady Macbeth’s request to be unsexed mean something more when the production has unsexed her partner in crime? Why would a female Macbeth bid her wife ‘bring forth male children only’ when, at this point, their girls-only policy is going so well? Is there an extra layer to Lady Macbeth’s having ‘given suck’, an extra sadness to this couple’s barrenness? Doesn’t Lady Macbeth’s performance of terror at Duncan’s death, and the gender she knows will be assigned to it in Macduff’s concerned ‘Look to the lady’, make that misogynistic association look all the more ridiculous when she is no longer the only woman on stage? Are we to think that women, now cast as both the plotters and the doers in crime, are invariably evil and in more ways than Shakespeare could conceive, or that the substitution signals the arbitrariness of Macbeth’s (and, by extension, Lady Macbeth’s) gender, that women and men alike are capable of the worst of human nature? This production starts to ask these questions, faintly suggests them, but never seems to push them, nor a theory for their answers, to the forefront of its interpretation, which leaves director Christopher Haydon’s gender stance, let alone his interpretation of and response to Shakespeare’s, disappointingly ambiguous, unthoughtfully nebulous. In a play whose tragedy is clinched by the crucial detail of being born to a woman or not, this central elusiveness means that – however impressive the spectacle, however commendable the diversity, however engaging the emotional accuracy – this production fails to deliver deeply on the issue in which it places such high superficial stakes.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Pete says:

    Excellent, almost forensic, review

    Liked by 1 person

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