Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Opened 17
April, 2007

It can be difficult to find the music in my native Northern Irish accent: our cadence patterns mean that we seem to sing in a different scale, as it were. Patrick O'Kane finds grand, rolling music in his portrayal of the bloody thane for director Conall Morrison's RSC debut. However, it comes at the expense of commensurate scale. Everything about Morrison's production is huge and graphic. It would have no trouble filling the Royal Shakespeare Theatre next door. But that house is now closed for remodelling to make it more "playable", and this work appears in the Swan Theatre, which is not only much smaller but disproportionately more intimate. The opening minutes – a  bloody battle accompanied by the deafening battery of a Lambeg drum – offer an exhilarating sensory shock, but the action continues in scarcely diminished volume for the next three hours. Several of Shakespeare's plays normally last this long, but not Macbeth, one of his shortest texts.

This length is also partly due to actors overplaying accents. Since several of Morrison's major players are Irish, he asks most of the others to attempt similar speech, with results at best variable (I cannot imagine the First Murderer was meant to be Welsh); the non-Caucasian performers go strongly African or Caribbean instead, though in at least one case a black actor seems to settle on a highland Scots lilt. "Prophesyings with accents terrible", indeed.

In contrast, Morrison's conception of the witches works wonderfully. Appearing first as the reanimated corpses of Macbeth's victims in the opening battle, they are seen mourning their lost infants and consequently motivated by revenge; one, as the mysterious Third Murderer, even whispers, "Fly!" to young Fleance, explaining his escape from the deadly fate of his father Banquo. At every stage, one or more of the weird sisters are orchestrating matters: manipulating dead Banquo at the feast, playing the drunken porter, drawing the doctor's attention to Lady Macbeth's guilty somnambulism.

Dearbhle Crotty is terrific as Lady M, skilfully negotiating a path between Morrison's preferred playing register and a more conventionally nuanced reading. One can see the very moment when she realises with horror that her husband has overtaken her in the infernal wickedness stakes. In later scenes, O'Kane's Macbeth seems almost drunk on his own atrocity, veering from manic to maudlin within a few lines. It's a more thoughtful performance than it generally appears, not least because Morrison crams in enough sound and fury to equip any three normal Macbeths.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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