Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Opened 16 November, 1999

How to wind up functionaries of the Royal Shakespeare Company: when they mention that this Macbeth clocks in at a mere two hours and ten minutes, remark, "Ah, but [former RSC artistic director] Terry Hands's production at Clwyd last month was twenty minutes shorter than that!" However, Hands pitched his production blatantly at the school set-text market (even scheduling most of its early performances within schools' afternoon hours); Gregory Doran nips, tucks and tweaks the text here and there, certainly, but for general narrative clarity rather than with the undignified single-mindedness of niche marketing.

Antony Sher is, for my money, almost unparalleled at conveying the full nuance of an emotionally complex speech without seeming laboured or actorly in doing so. Whether it is "If it were done when 'tis done..." or "Come, seeling night...", he conveys the tone of every syllable; when Sher allows you to see artifice in his performance, it is clear that it is self-conscious artifice on the part of the character, not the player. Indeed, this is almost the undoing of his portrayal of Macbeth. Since virtually every word is given equal emotional truth, a clear character fails to emerge; it is as if this is a thane who is so masterly at "spinning" (elsewhere, Stephen Noonan as the drunken porter gets a big laugh for turning his imaginary "equivocator" into a Blairite spin-doctor) that he convinces even himself of the sincere feelings behind everything he says, but does not really possess a core nature beneath all the words.

The same could be said of Doran's production as a whole. He and designer Stephen Brimson Lewis show a strong visual sense, right from the witches' opening scene in full, disconcerting blackout; thereafter, ceremonial robes jostle with bullet-belts and the visions conjured up by the weird sisters emerge as tortured faces showing through membranes in the back wall. Yet I felt no sense of a single driving concept. Fergal Keane's programme notes speak of the play's modern relevance to struggles against tyrants across the globe, but again it is a connection which is merely made: one does not feel the tingle of a current actually flowing through it.

Harriet Walter's Lady Macbeth is played towards the deep, impassioned end of her vocal register, although there is a little too much of the "haggard voice" to her sleepwalking scene. Macbeth and Lady M have the occasional moment of deep affinity, as when she pants while his hand snakes between her thighs for "Bring forth men children only" or they share a manic giggle on the impossibility of easy sleep; by the end, Macbeth is behaving with similar complicity with Seyton... who emerges from a trap in the stage when his name is called with the pronunciation, "Satan!" However, this is simply one more instance in a production which is full of touches that never coalesce into gripping the viewer.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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