Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Opened 16 May, 1996

When the Royal Shakespeare Company begins to work to its new schedule next year with a second regional residency in Plymouth and several fewer openings in its shorter 26-week London season it will have to strive correspondingly harder to cover all areas of its existing repertoire. For instance, there is no need to stage Macbeth only two years after its last RSC production, still less to stage it in as dull a form as Tim Albery has done.

I'm not familiar with Albery's work as an opera director, but his Macbeth with Stewart Laing's stark, unhelpful set and Mimi Jordon Sherin's opulent, unnecessary lighting design has the appearance of a modern opera production of the worst kind, in which look overrides sound and sense. If there were signs of an intelligent thematic vision, one could offset against it puzzlers such as "withered and wild" witches who resemble Victorian widows in their stark black dresses, reciting their infernal recipe without the slightest sign of actually cooking it up. However, the only criterion in evidence throughout is that of creating elegant images.

Albery has instructed his cast to go, for slow, resonant deliveries. Roger Allam as Macbeth dutifully does so, but without emotional or physical reinforcement (despite his Ruritarian uniform, Allam does not make a convincing warrior Thane), his performance soon grows maddeningly tedious. Bríd Brennan fares worse as Lady Macbeth, sounding in her early scenes as if she were taking part in a school recital competition. Philip Quast's Banquo and Colum Convey's Macduff grow close at times to striking a workable medium, but then flounder again in the morass of style-over-content. Adrian Schiller as the Porter good but not great is a welcome relief.

The moments at which any degree of genuine engagement occurs can be counted on one's fingers, and seem at any rate to be aberrations from the hollow vision imposed by Albery. One cannot see why he might have wanted to direct Macbeth. His ideas are entirely cosmetic: the apparitions projected onto a screen, a cyclorama projection of a burning landscape which repeatedly changes colour during the final phase of the play.

The Lord sent a plague of Macbeths upon the land late last year. This production is more sterile than any of those, including the Mark Rylance farrago. Those who do not know the play will be put off by it: those who do will be bored to distraction. It is full of light, half full of sound, quite devoid of fury and signifies less than nothing.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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