Behold, the Lord hath sent a plague of Macbeths upon the land. So many productions of the Scottish play have opened in the last month or two that the inattentive theatregoer might believe he was in Edinburgh during the Fringe season. And while, elsewhere in London, Mark Rylance is just wild about saffron, Nicolas Kent sets out to make his Kilburn production burn brighter than any other.
Literally so: the gravel-strewn stage is alight with fiery pits, braziers and tracks of flame, and nobles carry torches rather than staffs of office. This is tempting fate in a venue which was destroyed by fire a decade or so ago, but Wayne Dowdeswell's pyrotechnics create an impressive atmosphere, aided by David Taylor's discreet lighting design which fashions the illusion that the stage is semi-illuminated solely by these fires.
The single scene in England between the exiled Malcolm and Macduff, however, is played in full stage lighting, which rather hammers home the symbolism behind the otherwise pervasive gloom: Macbeth's Scotland is a kind of hell, and as his somnambulist wife remarks, "Hell is murky." I must also confess that I cannot fathom the intention behind Kent's decision to cast largely along racial lines: Macbeth and Banquo are black (as are Macduff's family, though he is white), Duncan's sons are ethnic Asians. This does not hamper the production in any way whatever; I just wish I knew the dramatic point that lay behind it.
No criticism can be made of Lennie James's Macbeth, but little extravagant praise either. He fills the role well, making all the requisite transitions from timidity through guilty hysteria to granite tyranny. His shifts in nature are highlighted by the opposite journey made by Lady Macbeth, whom Helen McCrory plays excellently. Her early invocation to the "spirits that tend on mortal thoughts" has apparently been contemplated for some time, awaiting the right moment when greatness drifts into reach. Lady M's silent, unobtrusive expression of growing horror during Macbeth's "Come, seeling night..." speech fixes the moment at which his growing evil surpasses her own waning resolution, and the sleepwalking episode is splendidly underplayed.
Tom Chadbon doubles as a wheelchair-bound Duncan and the porter, entering through the audience, his woollen combinations open to the waist. Nitin Chandra Ganata's Malcolm is a little insubstantial; the false catalogue of wickedness he recounts to Macduff comes off too easily, and his immediate recantation seems no more sincere. Paul Brightwell is altogether too actorly as Ross, grabbing attention when he should merely be advancing the plot.
Nevertheless, rattling along at under two hours without an interval, Kent's production is one of the better Macbeths around at the moment. Focusing tightly on the central couple, it loses some of the broader thematic nuances but makes up for these deficiencies with its concerted narrative drive.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
Return to index of reviews for the year 1995
Return to master reviews index
Return to main theatre page
Return to Shutters homepage