The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Macbeth at the Barbican ‘simmers with tension’

Carleigh Nicholls reviews The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Macbeth at the Barbican, a production that combines Shakespeare’s classic text with the modern-day horror genre.

Is Macbeth the first horror movie? Director Polly Findlay would have you believe so, as well as film critic Peter Bradshaw, who says so in the programme. Indeed, Findlay has included an array of modern horror tropes in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Macbethat the Barbican, which follows its run in Stratford-upon-Avon. From a doomsday clock counting down two hours from Macbeth’s murder of Duncan to his ultimate demise, three little girls reminiscent of The Shining twins playing the witches, to the Porter tallying up everyone who Macbeth has killed on a chalkboard wall, Findlay’s production simmers with tension.

            Although the play is in a contemporary setting, it is subtly reminiscent of the 1960s and 1970s—often seen in horror films—with retro music playing in the distance, wood panelling and golden tablecloths, adding an eerie element to the set. The set is two-storeys, with the second storey often used for secondary or background scenes, while also allowing the witches to often appear overhead. Dialogue and music echo from the second storey, adding to the ghostly character of the set. Additionally, you can hear the low humming of a bass which peaks in key scenes, helping to create a subliminal tension. Time is a key theme in this production, and the audience is meant to feel it moving, especially with the inclusion of the countdown clock in the centre of the stage. Designer Fly Davis and Sound Designer Christopher Shutt must be commended for helping to create this sense of urgency.

Christopher Eccleston’s Macbeth is the epitome of a soldier. There is no doubt that Eccleston’s Macbeth has led his men to success on the battlefield. His Macbeth contrasts superbly with David Acton’s elderly and sickly King Duncan. While Macbeth first appears blood-smeared and militaristic having won a battle, Duncan is laying in bed in his pyjamas and bathrobe listening to the news. Eccleston cleverly shows that Macbeth does not really respect his King. He begrudgingly kisses the wheelchair-bound King’s hand, and mockingly laughs at the King’s proclamation. These subtle scenes are important, as they show that Macbeth already has darkness in him. He is not just an instrument of the witches; they have only spurred on something that is already inside him. As Banquo (Raphael Sowole) warns Macbeth after hearing the witches’ prophecies: “And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,/ The instruments of darkness tell us truths,/Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s/ In deepest consequence.” Eccleston superbly shows how Macbeth’s own ambition ruins him and his family. By the time he hears the news of his wife’s death, he is so broken and numb, he has no grief left in him.

‘Horror films often have ambiguous endings, and Findlay brings her own spin to Shakespeare’s conclusion.’ Macbeth at the Barbican. Photograph: Richard Davenport 

            As Macbeth’s partner-in-crime, Niamh Cusack’s Lady Macbeth marries well with her hard husband. Gorgeously draped in evening gowns and wearing high heels, she appears to outsiders as the perfect housewife. However, Cusack’s Lady Macbeth is ruthless and frantic. She is constantly moving, almost manic. While Cusack does a wonderful job delivering her famous lines, her character lacks direction. Her motivation is assumedly just blind ambition, but the audience is never really shown why she wants to be Queen, nor is her downfall into madness properly observed. Nonetheless, Cusack works well with what is given to her.

            The rest of the cast does a fine job. Edward Bennett’s Macduff is portrayed almost like a civil servant, donning a suit and briefcase. Bennett wondrously showcases his shock and grief at hearing the news of his wife and children’s brutal murder, highlighting the power of a quiet grief. However, it is very difficult to believe that this Macduff, even high on revenge, would be able to defeat Eccleston’s strong Macbeth. As such, the final battle is a little lacklustre with Macbeth only losing due to his cockiness. Michael Hodgson as the Porter is a breath of fresh air, bringing relevant humour and lightness to this heavy story. Hodgson sits on the stage throughout the whole play, lurking in the background like a hunched henchman and watching everything. He is a witness to all that passes, especially with his death tally. Perhaps this tally is a step too far, as during both the interval and at the end of the play, I heard audience members asking each other what the tally meant with many not knowing the answer. Nonetheless, as he notes “I pray you, remember the porter,” and indeed, he plays a pivotal role in Macbeth’s demise in this production.

            Horror films often have ambiguous endings, and Findlay brings her own spin to Shakespeare’s conclusion. As Malcolm (Luke Newberry) is proclaimed King, Banquo’s young son Fleance (Carlo Brathwaite) appears with the three witches in the background, and the clock starts ticking again. The cycle has begun anew. While this ending would not have gone down well with contemporary audiences as King James VI&I was believed to be a descendant of Banquo, this ominous ending works well the tone of the production. Findlay has indeed shown that “something wicked this way comes.”


The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Macbeth will be playing at the Barbican until January 18, 2019.

Feature photograph: Richard Davenport

Carleigh Nicholls is a PhD Candidate in History at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, but is currently based in London. She is a great appreciator of theatre, particularly plays with a historical nature, but enjoys all genres. Her general research interests include politics, religion, and the law in Stuart Britain, with a particular focus on Restoration Scotland.

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