Macbeth at the Royal Shakespeare Company

We’ve been away most of last week visiting family and going to Stratford-upon-Avon to see Macbeth at the transformed Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

Watching a live performance of any of Shakespeare’s plays is a special treat, one that we manage less frequently now that we’ve moved so far away from Stratford, but combining our visit with a family occasion made it possible this year. The new auditorium is impressive with a huge stage thrusting into the audience, seating around 1,000 people on three sides of the stage. Our seats were in the stalls, very close to the stage, with a group of school children seated in front of us, whose reactions were highly amusing.

The set design was dramatic and atmospherically dark, shattered stained glass windows in a ruined church with defaced images of saints and piles of rubble on the floor. At one point in the play Macbeth and Banquo erupted onto the stage through holes in the back wall. There are no weird sisters in this version of Macbeth; the prophecy is announced in suitably ghost-like tones by three children (the children of Macduff) suspended in the air above the stage as though they have been hung on meat hooks.

It was the children and Seyton the porter who stole the show for me, although the other actors all gave excellent performances. The murder of the children had me gasping and almost in tears as Macduff’s little daughter was taken away to her death. Jamie Beamish as Seyton was fantastic and his pyrotechnics really shocked me. Jonathan Slinger portrayed Macbeth as an frenetic lunatic who made me decidedly edgy and I never knew how close to me in the audience he was going to get – I was glad I wasn’t on the front row.

A hugely enjoyable performance.

Julius Caesar

jc-progOur last visit to the RSC in Stratford was in 2007. We try to go for my birthday in August but last year left it too late to book tickets to see Hamlet; with David Tennant in the lead role tickets went very quickly!

This year we went to see Julius Caesar, at The Courtyard Theatre. (Work on the new auditorium is well underway but performances there still seem a long way off.) The RSC’s production emphasises how brutal, dangerous and violent the world of ancient Rome was.  As we entered the theatre and took our seats two scantily-clothed, dirt-streaked actors were fighting on stage like wild animals, portraying Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome – a dramatic addition to Shakespeare’s original text. This was followed by the Roman fertility festival of Lupercal – Lupercal is a cave on the Palatine Hill believed to be where a wolf suckled Romulus and Remus. I thought this was a most effective beginning, with the statue of the wolf suckling the twins projected on the backdrop, and showing a Rome full of violence, panic and hysteria. The cast was aided by video scenes of the crowd projected onto screens. It was actually very clever, if rather distracting but as we were sitting to one side of the stage I was able to ignore most of it.

The performance has stayed fresh in my mind. It was certainly a most entertaining production, and I enjoyed it even though it was slightly marred because I found most of Brutus’s dialogue inaudible. This may be because for his quieter speeches Sam Troughton had his back to our side of the stage, and yet I had no difficulty in hearing the other actors. His portrayal of Brutus emphasised the flaws in Brutus’s character – is Brutus really an “honourable man”? Clearly not, as Troughton’s “scared rabbit”, hesitant portrayal of Brutus came over as weak in complete contrast to Greg Hicks’s Caesar and particularly to Darrell D’Silva’s brutish and battle-scarred Mark Antony. As Cassius reveals, Brutus is easily persuaded over to the conspirators’ cause.

Julius Caesar is a play that has never convinced me that Caesar’s actions were so ambitious, nor of the justice or otherwise of the conspirators’ cause and this performance didn’t help. The conspirators came over as self-seeking and just as autocratic as Caesar, although strangely I found myself sympathising with Cassius, a character I didn’t take to when I read the play, with his “lean and hungry look”. Maybe this Cassius was just not that hungry, but nevertheless he was dangerous and Caesar would have done well to follow his own advice and avoid him.

The play draws attention to difference between the idealised image of Caesar and his infirmities – he is deaf in one ear, a weak swimmer and epileptic and Greg Hicks’s performance was powerful, if rather over-emphasised. However, Mark Antony’s vigorous and convincing devastation at Caesar’s death probably swung me over to his side. Darrell D’Silva’s performance was by far the best of the night.