All hail the time lord – An Irishwoman’s Diary on Christopher Eccleston in ‘Macbeth’
Christopher Eccleston in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of ‘Macbeth’, directed by Polly Findlay. Photograph: Richard Davenport. Copyright: RSC
Time lords both, Shakespeare and Dr Who are a well-matched pair with a developed sense of immortality and ability to assume different personas. The late writer was depicted, and inspired plots in, several episodes of the long-running television series, while several “doctors” took star turns in his plays.
The ninth Doctor Who, Christopher Eccleston, is currently playing the lead role in this year’s Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production of Macbeth, having left his time-travelling well behind him. In recent interviews, the Manchester actor has claimed he was blacklisted by the BBC for abandoning his fictional time machine, the Tardis, after just one season, and had to cross the Atlantic for work.
Even more disarming are the 'witches', wearing pink onesies with hoods, big bobbles on slippers, and clutching little plastic dolls
That was all of 13 years ago, and Eccleston is busy back home. In the renovated “one-room” Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, he envelopes the stage with his magnetic presence, exhausting all adjectives with his adroit, baleful, caustic would-be king. Niamh Cusack, cast as Lady Macbeth, plays his mendacious, seductive and ever so slightly vulnerable queen.
Even more disarming are the “witches”, wearing pink onesies with hoods, big bobbles on slippers, and clutching little plastic dolls. Polly Findlay’s production has all sorts of interesting twists, not least the fact that the weird sisters have a combined age of 30, at most, and there isn’t a bearded woman in sight.
Set designer Fly Davis’s simple stage is overlooked by a glass-screened gallery, resembling a corporate boardroom, for the cleverly crafted court scenes. Ever present is the Porter, shuffling along with a carpet sweeper or crouched close to an office watercooler, chalking up deaths and dropping hints about the Gunpowder Plot, of which the play contains echoes.
The British critics have given a mixed reaction to a large digital clock which counts down the minutes until “great Birnam Wood” comes to “Dunsinane Hill”. Several quotes from the text beamed as surtitles seem a mite superfluous. The Guardian’s Michael Billington, who had described Macbeth as the “greatest theatrical poem ever written”, felt he was being lectured to at times, but did concede that the production moves at a “tremendous lick”.
And few could not be struck by Edward Bennett’s stunned and stunning grief-gripped response, as his Macduff learns that his wife and children are dead. The only disarming note for this Diarist was the applause from a section of the audience when he finally dispensed with Macbeth. It has only happened twice since the production opened, the RSC says – but twice in one week!
The Stratford-upon-Avon run is almost booked out until mid-September, and moves to London’s Barbican from mid-October, but the RSC has limited availability and standing tickets can be bought on the day of a play at a discount. That system makes theatre a mite more accessible in terms of price, and Shakespeare’s birthplace is only 40 minutes by excellent public transport from Birmingham.
What if you are trying to make your way in an increasingly uncertain world where drowning migrants no longer make headlines?
It is one among a crop of current Macbeth interpretations, and Billington believes this to be no coincidence as the play “speaks to us urgently today”.
What, though, if you are a millennial observing the unchecked behaviour and “blood-letting ambition” of political leaders extending across the Atlantic to the Urals, without any curtain coming down on it all ? What if you are trying to make your way in an increasingly uncertain world where drowning migrants no longer make headlines, a room of one’s own is an impossible luxury, and conformity, rather than initiative, appears to be the ultimate workplace virtue?
Back home in Galway, a chance visit to another much smaller theatre venue offered a snapshot of this worldview.
Here I declare an interest, for one of the excellent cast of Calamity Theatre’s recent production at the Galway Fringe Festival is a family friend. However, this island is but a hamlet at times – and I did pay full price for a ticket to Rebecca Spelman’s Apoptosis.
The 45-minute play in the Columban Hall on Sea Road was worth every one of its €12 entrance price, as the principal character gave us a witty Powerpoint presentation on the meaning of happiness, “success”, and the reality of a “stab or be stabbed” working environment. Use of cardboard for props on set magnified the sense of bewildering impermanence.
Spelman’s nihilistic take on the legacy of baby boomers is rich with humour. All the “meta-narratives” may seem meaningless, the wellness industries a distraction, but laughter is the ultimate redemption.
The parting shot – “global warming is coming for you all” – has echoes of Macbeth’s Porter, were it not for the fact that Shakespeare knew little of that terrifying prospect.
As for Eccleston’s Dr Who, he had his time-travelling Tardis to escape from it all.