I have seen poor productions of Macbeth. We all have. It's a beguiling play, apparently so simple, that no production company thinks its beyond its ambitions. But no matter how poor the production, I have always walked away from the theatre thinking that the play itself is indestructible. There is something about its core ritualistic action that even the most amateur actors or dullest directorial vision cannot destroy. It was thus the strangest experience in the world to take a seat in the brand-new Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon—indeed, to take what is in theory the bestseat in the house, the "superseat" dead center in the circle—for a production of the play that sapped it of all life.
My very memory of the set leaves me wistful for what might have played out there. At the rear of the stage stood the representation of a cathedral wall featuring shattered stained-glass saints. Under these sat three cellists who played out an intermittent score like angels from a lost heaven. The set was in fact a sign of things to come, but like Macbeth, confronted with the weird sisters' spectacles, I was beguiled into a false idea of what that would be. The set's implicit promise was that the play would recover something for which its iconoclastic signs were the trace. But there was no heaven to be found in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre that evening, only a passionless purgatory bathed in cool blue light.
It didn't help that when I saw the performance, almost two months into the run, the actors seemed uncertain of themselves and the space in [End Page 149]which they were working. At the "Talk Back" session afterwards, someone asked how many rehearsals the company had in the space before opening night. The answer: just their tech rehearsal. If they'd had more, they might have had a different relationship with the space, and a different energy as a company. But it would have been difficult for anything to provide the coherence and energy that the production lost with director Michael Boyd's decision to split the weird sisters into two trios, the first in the form of the three cellists and the second in the form of two boys and a girl introduced to us suspended from meat hooks above the stage a couple of scenes into the action. The decision did more than "destroy Shakespeare's superbly atmospheric opening," as Michael Billington said ( Guardian, 27 April 2011). Boyd's choice in regard to the weird sisters unseamed the play from the nave to the chops, depriving not just of its guts, in the figures of the daemonic trio driving the action, but its energetic soul.
The idea behind the choice seems obvious enough. The play has so much to say about angels and devils, and heaven and hell, that one might be able to give audiences a different experience of the play, one that redeems the time for them, by reversing its usual dynamic. Rather than sinking with Macbeth into a psychological hell to which he and we are led by a demonic trio, we will experience instead an intensified sense of a lost heaven with three children, or figures of innocence, as our guides. The action that unfolds now also has a neat explanation, which becomes clear when we see (if we had not already guessed it) that these same children are slaughtered at Macduff 's: it executes a come-uppance for Macbeth from his own victims who come back from the...