It’s rare for the UK’s two leading classical theatres – the National and the Royal Shakespeare Company – to stage the same play within a fortnight. So the clash of their Macbeths has the feel of a theatrical Real Madrid vs Barcelona, even if the fixture proves dismayingly one-sided.
There’s a fascination, though, in seeing how talent teams, in separate rehearsal rooms, approached the same material. Both productions channel the cinema. Polly Findlay’s RSC staging has the feel of a cult 1970s horror movie, a conceit heightened by projected captions of place (“Glamis”, “England”) and time. Shakespeare’s jump- cuts during the climactic battle scene, which seem to prefigure film, trigger punctuating flashes of “Later”.
In this sinister milieu that makes you glad theatre isn’t watched alone, the witches are titches: young girls squeaking out their prophecies while cradling dolls. This genuinely scary trio can be seen as the ghosts of the babies the text suggests the Macbeths have lost; perhaps they are why the bereaved father now seeks to “bring forth men children only”. The Porter, often a redundant role, marks each of the play’s multiple deaths with a chalk stroke on the back brick wall.
The research DVDs Rufus Norris seems to have been watching while prepping his National production come from the post-apocalyptic genre. The state that Macbeth claims bloodily from King Duncan and then defends from Duncan’s son, Malcolm, is defined by a massive mechanised ramp resembling a motorway overpass. The ambitious couple live not at Glamis Castle, but in a caravan amid shattered outbuildings.
Times are so tough that the new king’s armour consists of packing board strapped with masking tape. The, mainly brutal, reviews of the production have mocked the prevalence of plastic supermarket bags, often carrying severed heads, but that is one of the cleverer touches: a topical nod to the fear that plastic will survive anything.
Filmic influence is not the only overlap. Both versions have Lady Macbeths with Irish backgrounds: Niamh Cusack at Stratford, Anne-Marie Duff in London. Does the Celtic variety of female strength somehow overcome feminist concerns about the pushy woman stereotype of Lady M? And, uncannily, both shows cast the Porter as a Geordie (Michael Hodgson beside the Avon, Trevor Fox next to the Thames).
In the title role, Christopher Eccleston (RSC) and Rory Kinnear (NT) seem united in rooting their portrayals in the soldier’s confessions that “my mind is full of scorpions” and “then comes my fit again”. Jerks of speech and body suggest that each of these thanes has mental health issues: perhaps bi-polarity, in their clear arc from under-confidence to over-confidence. The soliloquies differ most – delivered by Kinnear as inner monologues, while the other actors freeze-frame, but Eccleston interacting with the audience like a stand-up.
If Eccleston and Cusack (a riveting depiction of frustrated female power) would win a dance-off between the two couples, it’s because their director provides a society precise enough to outline the prizes for which the characters are slaughtering each other. Norris’s presentation of the Scots as a people without a state makes rare sense of Duncan’s sudden decision to spend a night at the Macbeths’: perhaps, as Saddam Hussein and Yasser Arafat were reputed to do, he sleeps under random roofs for security reasons. But, in the completely non-Caledonian nation shown, it’s unclear why Macbeth bothers to kill Duncan, unless, perhaps, to get a bigger caravan in a fancier patch of wasteland.
These stage productions are two of five Macbeths on offer in Britain this spring: along with a ballet, a movie, and a novelisation by Jo Nesbo. Some have attributed the current popularity of the play to Brexit – it is set in a bitterly divided Britain – but it seems more relevant to me that Macbeth is about someone who seizes an unexpected chance to lead, then finds government a struggle.
While there is no suggestion that Theresa May, Donald Trump or Emmanuel Macron stabbed their predecessor, our politics is full of rapidly promoted novices whose ambition was dampened by reality. If Gordon Brown seemed, by birthplace and personality, an exact Macbeth, the play has subsequently seemed a general democratic handbook.
Some reviews suggested that the National may be facing its own leadership crisis after the artistic director’s Macbeth extended a run of critically rubbished productions including Salome and Common. In fact, the Norris regime is doing well with new English writing (Nina Raine’s tremendous Consent soon follows David Eldridge’s excellent Beginning to the West End), and American work: Follies, Network, John.
But Norris needs to show that he can direct and produce Shakespeare, especially as the RSC, confirmed by its exciting and original take on the Scottish play, is looking so sure-footed on the classics.
The RSC’s “Macbeth” runs until 18 January 2019 and the National’s until 23 June 2018
This article appears in the 21 Mar 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special