Minerva Studio, Chichester / Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, London NW1
Opened 1 / 4 June
, 2007
*** / **

Only a disobliging performance schedule prevented this from being a triple review, but frankly, two bloody thanes in four days are more than enough.

Rupert Goold has built up a reputation for audacious, conceptually dense reimaginings of classic texts. Doctor Faustus intercut with Jake and Dinos Chapman's creation of their vitrine series Hell: that was one of Goold's. So was the insanely counter-intuitive but thrillingly resonant Arctic relocation of The Tempest, seen last year in Stratford and earlier this year in the West End. Macbeth reunites him with the star of that production, Patrick Stewart, and takes a similar though rather less egregious step in portraying the Scotland of the play as a Stalinist dictatorship. This makes eminent sense in terms not just of frequent purges, but also the pervasive atmosphere of terror in a land where Macbeth remarks "There's not a one of them but in his house/ I keep a servant fee'd": anyone could be a state informant.

However, for every moment of crystalline connection, another had me groaning or, worse, laughing. The speech about "the temple-haunting martlet", written of birds wheeling in the sky over Macbeth's castle, is here addressed to a brace of game fowl in the kitchens through which (why?) King Duncan enters Dunsinane. The drunken porter opens the gate not to Macduff and Lennox but to the entire Macduff family of husband, wife and three children, who look as if they have stopped off whilst making the school run. It is a clever touch to have Banquo succumb to poisoned coffee on a grim railway journey rather than ambushed on horseback, but it almost comically strains earlier lines such as "Ride you this afternoon?"

In fact, various textual emendations are made: when Macbeth is staring at the ghost of Banquo (or not: the scene is staged once with and once without an actual figure), his wife upbraids him "you look but on the air" rather than "on a stool"; the three witches (tremendously sinister field-nurses) throw ingredients not into the flame, but figuratively into [Macbeth's] brain. And the textual slippage continued, at the show I saw, in Stewart's performance. He is an actor of great deliberation, but when he even slips up on verb agreement, it suggests that he is not listening to himself. Perhaps this is why I was never feelingly gripped by the horrors played out on this stark kitchen/hospital/morgue set (where Kate Fleetwood's sleepwalking Lady Macbeth washes her hands, grand-Guignolesque, from a tap pouring blood): the players do not invest enough intensity in it themselves. The sole glorious exception is Michael Feast, who is as alert as ever in the role of Macduff.

What a contrast with Regent's Park's Macduff: Peter Duncan, sometime children's TV presenter and current honorary Chief Scout of the UK's Scout Association. Duncan brings nothing to the role except that when he says "We have willing dames enough" [to satisfy the alleged lusts of Malcolm] you expect him to add, "'s one I prepared earlier." More thought has gone into Edward Kemp's production than emerges, for the venue simply proves inimical to the kind of moral and psychological murk required by this play. When dandelion seeds are blowing in the air and jet planes passing overhead en route to Heathrow, it is hard to immerse oneself in tyranny and supernatural evil. (Hard, too, when Lady Macbeth flings her coronet into a shallow pool onstage and it visibly floats.) Antony Byrne and Sarah Woodward as the murderous couple instil as much depth as they can in performances which principally need to be bellowed to carry on the urban evening air.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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