Almeida Theatre, London N1
Opened 20 January, 2005

Theatre is all about suspending your disbelief. One of the worst things you can do, as a spectator, is to write off an entire production just because one person doesn’t look right to you.  Simon Russell Beale is perhaps the best British stage actor around. He brings a terrific light of intelligence and bitter humour to every role he plays.  Unfortunately, what stops this show being magnificent is his appearance.

It’s not just that he’s portly – I, of all people, could hardly complain about that. Nor is it just that he’s not very tall, and spends several scenes beside the gigantic Silas Carson as Banquo.  The thing is, he knows he’s not built for action, and always plays his roles accordingly. Yet Macbeth needs action.  Beale’s thane is a brilliant infernal schemer, but in Acts One and Five we need to see the warrior, and we don’t.

During the middle phase of the play, though, every other moment drips with extra significance and portent.  Beale’s performance is simply without peer in this respect. He uses pauses, hesitations and bathos to find levels of nuance in virtually every line.  Pretty much everyone else gets similar moments of insight. This is a Scottish court where everyone knows what’s afoot but dares show it only in sly glances.

Emma Fielding’s Lady Macbeth is slight of build but flinty – bloodless in the best sense – until the end, when her sleepwalking scene is wildly overdone.  William Gaunt, intriguingly, makes King Duncan rather unpleasant, and Tom Burke deliberately plays his son Malcolm as a pious prig, so that we feel the “true” royal dynasty is not flawless either.  The three Weird Sisters keep popping up throughout in the royal household.

Director John Caird uses no scenery except a huge roundel on the stage, demarcated with smoke and white light.  This allows the overlap of scenes to buy some time, which is sorely needed because the otherwise slow pace means the play clocks in at nearly three hours.  It’s an erratic evening, often lacking in the passions one wants; however, what it does have, it has so much of that it’s consistently fascinating.

Written for Teletext.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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