Review: Macbeth, Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon

North and south of the Border it is now well acknowledged that Scotland is to Macbeth what Denmark is to Hamlet; merely a player on Shakespeare’s stage.

Consequently the “Scottish play” has undergone a welcome process of detartanisation. A new emphasis has been placed on the universality which is, after all, the basis of the Bard’s genius.

True, Kenny Ireland’s acclaimed production at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum last year took the conflicts and myths of Scotland’s union with England as its basis, and it was entirely legitimate that it did so.

However, the fact that the play lent itself so readily to reinterpretation says more about its great breadth than about any essential Scottishness contained within it.

Therefore, it is entirely in keeping with the sense of the global relevance of Macbeth that the cast of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s latest production look more like the combatants of a modern conflict than of a medieval Scottish civil war and that the production will visit Tokyo as well as the more traditional venue of London’s Old Vic over the coming months.

When a mud-spattered Antony Sher is first carried shoulder-high on to the stage, there is such a rumbling of testosterone and violent energy that you could swear his Macbeth had just arrived from the internecine horrors of Kosovo or Bosnia. Ultimately, there is nothing as specific as that. This is Shakespeare’s great play of bloody ambition brought excellently into the 21st century.

Whereas the Lyceum’s production brought Scotland’s travails to the foreground, at the expense of Macbeth and his aspirant queen, RSC director Gregory Doran elevates the couple to fresh heights.

In so doing he has delved deep into the guts of the play, bringing up disquieting suggestions about the psychology of mass murder.

Beneath the powerfully sexualised militarism of the relationship between Macbeth and his lady lies the desperation of the former’s exhortation: “Bring forth men-children only!”

Here is the basis of Lady M’s ability to bend the will of her husband to thoughts of regicide. Of course, this has always been there in the play, but Doran raises it to a new, virtually Freudian prominence.

It may only be January, but theatre-goers who see a better performance than Sher’s Macbeth before the year is out should consider themselves fortunate indeed. In his private moments he is the spirit of hysteria, a wretched cauldron of inner emotional conflict who betrays absolutely the shallowness of his public self-assuredness.

While all around him battle, largely successfully, to meet the demands of a production which cracks through the play in a mere 130 minutes (with no interval), Sher enunciates his lines with a passionate clarity which conveys meaning and feeling in equal measure.

He has so mastered his character that much of the tempestuousness of Macbeth’s dilemma is reflected in his astonishingly expressive eyes. Never has the hapless thane looked so utterly terrified by the witches’ prophecy of his kingly future.

It is, however, not only in Sher’s face that we see the crisis develop.

He plays the part with such physicality that Macbeth’s descent is visible in his body long before he breaks down at the sight of the apparition of the dead Banquo.

When he emerges from the bowels of the stage for the last time he literally stoops to meet the conquering Macduff.

Compelling though he is, Sher simply would not be able to take Macbeth to the heights he does without the outstanding performance of Harriet Walter as the most complete Lady Macbeth I have seen. From the outset, her swaggering determination convinces you totally that she would be more comfortable in a queen’s robes. Nevertheless, even while she is revelling in the aphrodisiac of power, she is never far away from the suppressed screams of conscience, which are manifested wonderfully in the sleepwalking scene.

While this production has created, in the performances of Sher and Walter, one of the great Shakespearean double acts, it should be remembered that such performances place tremendous demands on the rest of the cast. The supporting actors in the main rise brilliantly to the challenge. Nigel Cooke’s Macduff is particularly strong; his anguished disbelief at the news that Macbeth has put his wife and all his children to the sword has a fantastically disengaged aspect to it, as if his mind has travelled to be with his slaughtered family.

In spite of his abbreviations to the script, Doran still finds time for Stephen Noonan’s superb porter, a combination of Alexei Sayle on acid and a particularly acerbic Rory Bremner. A nicely observed impersonation of Tony Blair as ‘the equivocator’ injects a sharp dose of humour into an otherwise charged production.

The only obvious casualties of the snipping back required for such a short performance are the weird sisters, whose lines are garbled and impact negligible. This is, however, a minor objection. Adrian Lee and Joji Hirota’s atmospheric, percussive score and Stephen Brimson Lewis’s sparse, ingeniously inventive set only serve to increase the sensory power of a production which must, surely, go down as a classic Macbeth.

This review was originally published in Scotland on Sunday on 23 January 2000

© Mark Brown

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