Macbeth | The Royal Exchange
Macbeth has, at this point, been reshaped and diverted in so many different ways, it seems impossible for a director to find something new and explorable in its enduring characters and story. In directing this modernized incarnation, Christopher Haydon definitely gives it a good shot.
The play opens with a cauldron in the centre of a golden, stalagmitic crown, with a ray of light descending from the heavens into the centre. This tranquil image is immediately shattered as the three witches make their entrance, in full flak jackets and gas masks, shooting and stabbing nameless soldiers and dancing. This serves well to illustrate the tone of the play, which revels throughout in the weakness of man against the overwhelming power of the supernatural.
This image is expanded upon later, when the toys of Macduff’s son (each barbie or toy soldier dressed up like effigies of characters in the play) are tossed around and destroyed by the witches, who throw them into the cauldron in a powerful, albeit heavy-handed statement on human mortality, and feeding into the recumbent idea of the witches as childish, and therefore devoid of the gendered societal roles of adults.
For a play already so preoccupied with ideas of gender and how they relate to societal roles, it is a brave decision to remove all consistency concerning gender of characters. Macbeth stands proudly upon a table in the midst of madness, in a dress, and screams “I Am A Man Again”, and where in traditional performances, it is Lady Macbeth who breaks free of the trappings of gender in order to become something “fantastical”, here it is Macbeth who seemingly becomes a more and more androgynous figure as the play carries on, aided by some excellent costume design and a shaved head that makes an appearance after the halfway mark.
Both Macduff and Macbeth are manipulated and told what to feel on grounds of their masculinity in the script, and here those lines are blurred, which recontextualises the soliloquy that contains the phrase “I could play the woman with mine eyes” which Macduff delivers when he hears about the deaths of his children.
Alongside this, the witches, who in the original play find the roots of their “weirdness” in their refusal to conform to gender stereotypes, are dressed in soldiers’ uniform and masks throughout, which go one step further by obscuring their humanity altogether, a technique that is used again when apparitions confront Macbeth, opaque, plague-doctor adjacent gas-masks symbolising both invulnerability and a post-human existence.
The violence in the play is limited, and instead, true to historical form, takes place outside the proscenium, with the exception of the fights between Macduff and Macbeth, Banquo and his murderers, and the Witches’ indiscriminate murder in the first scene. Despite this lack of viscera, the director makes sure you are never quite comfortable in your seat. Audience participation was stilted but repetitive, with the witches reaching over the proscenium at many points to ask, pantomime-like, for the names of characters or to chastise the technical crew, or in its best usage, alongside an audience plant who the witches robbed and attacked, creating a real sense of menace hard to find in more removed modes of performance. In a protracted bit just before the intermission, the porter of the Macbeth castle pokes fun at the wealth she sees around herself, stopping to out various audience members as accountants and tower-block developers. I will admit that I would probably have found the whole situation funnier if the front row benches didn’t begin to feel quite so precarious.
The use of technology in the play was limited to the witches, as they rappelled in from the ceiling on mechanical winches, and one of their prophecies was delivered via booming voice-over, although the rest of the play was charmingly analogue. This is perhaps a pragmatic decision, as for a play that famously is cursed to go wrong, there were a few technical slips and prop malfunctions although nothing which utterly ruined our suspension of disbelief.
The uniforms the soldiers and generals wear seem to change throughout the play, as of course there is no modern Scottish monarchist army, and so the costumers must rely on a pastiche of other countries’ outfits, although in the final battle, Macbeth, perhaps innocuously, puts on the same black flak armour we see the witches in in the first scene, instead of the Birnam-Wood-coloured camouflage that Macduff and the English are seen in, coming full circle in the universal garb of terror, a black and padded silhouette of violence.
This production provided a fresh take on a play that has been approached in every simple way that it can be, and as such, where many versions might have a singular gimmick (such as modernisation or gender play) this version spins every dial and pushes each button on the director’s console to stay unique, and is not necessarily the worse for it.