The Theatreguide.London Reviews
For the archive we have filed our reviews of several productions of Shakespeare's Macbeth on this one page. Scroll down for the one you want, or just browse.
Antony Sher 1999 - Sean Bean 2002 - Greg Hicks 2004 - Simon Russell Beale 2005 - Patrick Stewart 2007 - James McAvoy 2013
Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon Summer 1999; Young Vic Spring 2000
(Reviewed in Stratford)
Macbeth is a soldier. One of the first things we are told about him is that he has killed repeatedly, in hand-to-hand combat. A few more killings in the course of the play are not going to be all that big a leap for him.
I spell that out because in years of seeing and reading the play, that central fact has never been made as clear as it is in the Royal Shakespeare Company's current production, directed by Gregory Doran, with Antony Sher and Harriet Walter as the central couple.
Sher's Macbeth enters in battle dress (actually, a commando outfit in this modern version), his hands and face filthy from battle. This is a man to whom murder is the first thought when the witches predict kingship, and any brief wavering he may do will be tactical rather than moral.
If Macbeth changes, it is not from hero to killer, but from one kind of killer to another. He plans Banquo's death with the cool self-justification of a Mafia don, and his reaction to the ghost is more outrage than fear.
It is Lady Macbeth who is the weaker, and if that sounds surprising, look at the text, as Doran and Walter clearly have. She prays to the spirits to unsex her precisely because her femininity limits her, and she weeps in frustration when he wavers at doing what she can't do herself.
In short, this is an exciting, engrossing Macbeth that shakes up any preconceptions you may have about the play and makes you look at it afresh. It is filled with nice little touches, like the early introduction of handwashing and candle-carrying, planting those resonant symbols for their later appearance.
It is good to see Macduff's family in an early scene, so they don't come out of nowhere later, and it's a powerful effect for the witches' cave to burst out of the cellars of Macbeth's castle.
Nigel Cooke is a strong Macduff, particularly effective in the England scene where quiet understatement accents his grief; and Stephen Noonan is the best Porter I've ever seen, wisely and hilariously supplementing Shakespeare's jokes with contemporary references.
Albery Theatre Winter 2002-3
Before giving my views on Edward Hall's new production starring Sean Bean and Samantha Bond, I have to report that I saw it in an audience full of school groups, and the kids were held from start to finish, with nary a fidget. I don't know if that was a product of the star power (Both leads are known from TV and films), the generally crisp and clear production, or (my guess) the fact that Shakespeare happens to be a damn good playwright.
But demonstrably, on some level this production works. But that is just about the last good thing I have to say about it. For anyone over the age of 15, or anyone who has seen the play before, this has got to be a pretty dreary experience. It is not so much bad as just lifeless, with nothing except a few thunderclaps to keep you awake.
Director Hall has not come up with any particular interpretation of the play, nor has he led his actors to any particular characterisations - and the few hints of something going on are dropped immediately. For example, Lady Macbeth receives his letter in her bedroom, and greets him passionately, so they are soon rolling around in the bed, planning their regicide. I have seen erotically charged couples before, and the interpretation can work. But Hall drops it immediately, and Bond reverts to an old-fashioned nagging fishwife, the least interesting sort of Lady Macbeth there is.
Bean's Macbeth is equally undeveloped. For most of the first half there's no sense of a man in there at all, and later all we see is a dull-witted thug, like an unsentimentalised mafia hood, to whom murders and rebellions are just bothersome annoyances. In short, at his best, Bean makes an unattractive Macbeth, one we don't particularly want to spend time with.
And most of Hall's other shtick is pointless and/or dumb. Making the witches seductive Loreleis has potential, but he does nothing with it. Having the ghosts of both Duncan and Banquo reappear to watch Macbeth disintegrate near the end is a potentially good idea, but the two actors just hang around for a while and then wander offstage as casually as they had wandered on.
Other stuff - a nightmare scene for Fleance, a vomiting scene for Malcolm, a pregnant Lady Macduff, having the three murderers turn against each other, a coronation scene, and so on - is just nothingness multiplied. And Hall falls right into the trap just waiting there for any ill-thought-out modern dress production, as it becomes obvious that the reason Malcolm's army defeats Macbeth is that they are commandos armed with AK47s while all he has is his sword.
The only way to get Shakespeare into the West End if you're not the RSC is to make it a star vehicle that guarantees a sell-out and is critic-proof. I'm glad that lots of schoolkids will get to see the play and hope they'll like it. But there is no reason why anyone who is neither taken on a field trip nor enamoured of Sean Bean to bother.
RSC Stratford Summer 2004; Albery Theatre Winter 2004
(Reviewed in Stratford)
Like most of Shakespeare's tragedies, the Scottish play ultimately rises or falls on its central performance, whatever interpretations or staging devices a director imposes on it. And in Dominic Cooke's current RSC production (which, in fact, has little in the way of distracting interpretation), Greg Hicks gives us a manly and attractive Macbeth who is sufficiently complex to hold our attention and emotional involvement.
Hicks may not be a familiar name, and I am not sure why. In a 20+ year career that has been predominantly with the RSC and the National Theatre, he has delivered one solid performance after another, frequently stealing the show in supporting roles and repeatedly delivering the goods when moved up to leads.
Maybe it is his fate to forever be an unknown star, his work admired and enjoyed by those in the know while he never quite breaks through to the very top rank. (And maybe he prefers it that way, just being allowed to go along and do the work.)
His Macbeth is in many ways a traditional interpretation, but one that has rarely been presented as clearly and movingly - a man who seems, even to himself, to be essentially good, who is tempted to an act of evil, is frightened by the temptation but gives in to it, and then discovers what he had half-suspected, that that was just the first step along a path of villainy from which he could not turn back.
As I say, that's almost a textbook interpretation, but rarely have I watched it brought alive so clearly and movingly. The only thing standing in its way is an odd speech pattern Hicks has either selected or been directed to use, holding pauses before some lines so long you almost fear he's forgotten his words, and occasionally slipping into a mix of mid-line pauses and unusual stresses that sound like parodies of William Shatner.
But the play is not a one-man show, and what's going on around the star is almost uniformly excellent. While Sian Thomas' Lady Macbeth starts as a bit too much the nagging shrew for my taste, she is particularly touching in her lost isolation when Macbeth moves beyond her in evil and leaves her behind.
Louis Hilyer's Banquo and Clive Wood's Macduff both provide strong and attractive counterbalances to Macbeth, though Pal Aron has been seriously misdirected as Malcolm, making what is usually a fairly faceless character actively unattractive.
The play is done in a fast-moving two hours without interval, and will hold you from start to finish.
Almeida Theatre Winter-Spring 2005
There are some excellent things in John Caird's new production of Macbeth for the Almeida Theatre, including an original and moving take on the title role. But there is also a lot of dross you have to sit through to get at the good stuff.
Foremost among the virtues is Simon Russell Beale. Not a household name outside the London theatre scene (though he has played supporting roles in a number of films) SRB is generally acknowledged one of the finest stage actors of his fortyish generation.
He's not an obvious choice for Macbeth, though, looking more like a slightly seedy math professor than a military hero. But he has merely taken this as a challenge to find a way to make himself fit into the role (He wasn't an obvious Hamlet a couple of seasons back, but he made it work brilliantly.)
Being cast against type, Russell Beale plays the role against type. A few years ago Antony Sher played Macbeth as a grizzled old soldier and reminded us that this man kills people for a living, so that the play's events aren't really anything new for him.
You won't for a minute believe that SRB's Macbeth is the military hero he's described as in the opening scenes. But that turns the play into the story of a man for whom killing the king is a totally out-of-character and frightening prospect. Russell Beale's Macbeth is scared witless by the idea of the first murder, driven to tears that only his wife's alternating comforting and nagging can overcome.
But, having done it (and gotten away with it) once, he instantly hardens and never looks back. This is the first Macbeth I've ever seen brave enough to face down Banquo's ghost and chase him out of the room, or hard enough to be there in person for the Macduff family's massacre.
The only thing that is strikingly missing from this interpretation is the moment of shocked self-discovery when Macbeth would realise to his horror how much he's changed. Instead, Russell Beale takes the character directly to the weary recognition that it all wasn't worth it.
He is at his best - and better than almost anyone else I've ever seen - in the last third of the play, as Macbeth sinks into a resigned cynicism that makes his defeat and death more welcome to him than to his enemies.
There are other strong performances. Paul Higgins quietly makes Macduff's pain at hearing of the massacre palpable, and his visceral need for vengeance totally believable. And Tom Burke has the courage to play Malcolm as a rather shallow, cliche-spouting figurehead - again, more fully than ever before, you sense that Malcolm may be the good guy, but he is nowhere near the man Macbeth is.
But, as powerful attractions as those performances are, they are about all that is good about this production. Foremost among its flaws is a ponderously slow pacing, with long pauses after (and often in the middle of) almost every line of dialogue. Russell Beale makes this tic an integral part of his characterisation, as Macbeth slowly feels his way through new thoughts, but from everyone else it's just boring.
Macbeth is one of the shortest of Shakespeare's plays, and even the elephantine RSC has been known to zip through it in 90 minutes. But John Ciard's production takes almost three hours, solely because everything moves so very slowly.
And none of the other performances are noteworthy. Emma Fielding's Lady Macbeth is one of the most invisible I've ever encountered, leaving no impression. Rather than being weird sisters, the witches are played as faded gentlewomen more likely to offer Macbeth tea and cucumber sandwiches than eye of newt and toe of frog.
And Christopher Oram's dark and ugly vaguely-Jacobean costumes leave Macbeth walking through much of the play in what look like faded tartan plus-fours, like a weekend golfer searching for his ball.
In short, a powerful and moving performance in a rather dreary production. Keep your eye on the central character, take a nap whenever he's offstage, and you'll find much that is worth seeing.
Gielgud Theatre Autumn 2007
For the second time this week (The other was the musical Parade), I have to counsel sitting through a weak first act to get to a much better second half. And again, whether half a good show is worth the wait is up to you.
Rupert Goold's production, transferred from Chichester, begins as a virtual catalogue of directorial errors that add nothing to the play and repeatedly get in its way by calling attention to themselves.
Setting it in what appears to be the 1940s Soviet Union - there are films of the Red Army on parade - is perhaps no sillier than most updatings, with the usual number of pointless anachronisms and violations of the text, including a surely unintentionally comic Indiana Jones moment when someone comes at Macbeth with a knife and he wearily shoots him.
It might actually make some sense to set the opening scenes in the basement morgue of a hospital, with the nurses morphing into the witches. But when the same set then becomes the kitchen of Macbeth's castle, we are stuck with the unlikeliness of royal visitors coming in by the scullery door and the ghost-haunted banquet (along with every other scene) taking place below stairs.
Totally illogically and in multiple contradictions of the text, Banquo is murdered on board a commuter train (with poisoned railroad coffee - nothing new there, then), and then, in choreographed movements, the other passengers remove their coats, rearrange the seats and become the banquet guests in a sequence that virtually shouts 'Oh, what a clever director am I!'
There are other pointlessly showy set pieces, like playing the banquet scene twice, with and without ghost, and turning the witches' 'Double, double, toil and trouble' into a rap music video (I kid you not). But Rupert Goold's biggest crime lies in getting a terrible performance out of an excellent Shakespearean actor.
For the first half and part of the second, Patrick Stewart does a lot of what looks like Great Acting - wild swoops of his voice, illogical phrasing, loads of mugging and broad gestures.
It's the sort of thing that can even convince some people - those who don't expect Shakespeare to make sense anyway - that this is what it's supposed to look and sound like, and that, as long as he is hamming it up so much, they must be getting their money's worth, and it doesn't matter that no actual human being has ever sounded or behaved like that.
Kate Fleetwood's Lady Macbeth fares a little better. If you accept the overly simplistic notion that she's just a harridan who nags her weak husband into doing what he couldn't and wouldn't have done without her, then Fleetwood delivers that.
Her only problem is that she begins the play on such a high level of near-mad intensity that she has nowhere to go - ironically, her sleepwalking scene near the end is one of her calmest moments in the whole play.
And then, somewhere in the second act, a different Rupert Goold takes over, and real characters expressing real emotions finally begin to appear.
There are hints of this new mode earlier in Macbeth's scene with the murderers, when Patrick Stewart foregoes all the technical razzle-dazzle and just behaves like a human being, though he does enjoy the actor's show-offy gimmick of making and eating a cheese sandwich as he speaks.
But it is in the England scene - the one in which Macduff comes to get Malcolm to return to Scotland with an army, and learns that his wife and children have been killed - that the production finally justifies itself, and sets the tone for all that will follow.
This is, quite simply, the best version of that scene I have ever witnessed, with Scott Handy movingly conveying Malcolm's pain at having to slander himself in order to test Macduff's loyalty, and Michael Feast trumping him with a depiction of Macduff's despair.
And then Feast tops even that with his speechless reaction to the horrible news from home, extended seconds of trying to get his mouth to work and his brain to process the information that make up the single most intense and involving emotional moment in the play.
If it can ever be said that a twenty-minute scene is worth the price of admission, this is it - as perfect a playing of that whole sequence as I can imagine.
And something about that scene reinvigorates the rest of the play, with both director Goold and star Stewart rediscovering the power of understated, ungimmicky acting.
Stewart's Macbeth is never as fine a performance as it is in the final scenes, as the character betrays a weariness and recognition that he is already spiritually dead even as he continues to put up a brave front. Each of the classic set pieces - 'Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,' 'night shriek.' 'Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow' - is delivered naturally and beautifully, Stewart using all his intelligence and skill to hide the actor and show us the living character.
And so does a final hour of the play that is as excellently done as you could wish make up for a first two hours that get just about everything wrong? That is the decision you have to make.
Considering how many productions of Macbeth there must have been since its premiere in the 17th century, it is not surprising that some of them will have very little to add.
Indeed, Jamie Lloyd's production at the Trafalgar Studios has, as far as I can see, almost nothing original to say for itself at all - but somehow this doesn't stop it being dreadfully enjoyable.
Much of this enjoyment, as well as what little originality there is, comes from the central performance. Star castings tend to cause controversy in theatrical circles from time to time, but James McAvoy will surely answer any nay-sayers.
That most elusive of alchemies, the oft-mentioned but only occasionally seen ‘star quality’ which propels some actors on to fame and fortune, is evident whenever McAvoy is on the stage.
It isn’t because he is the cast-member with the most film credits to his name that you cannot take your eyes off him – he simply has a charisma and a watchability that are unequalled.
McAvoy gives this iconic character a mercurial charm and slightly desperate volatility that is fresh and unsettling. You can understand why his Macbeth is so beloved in the play’s opening scenes, before ambition seizes him – and why, by its conclusion, so feared.
And if McAvoy looks a little slight to pass for a warrior, the production team douse him in enough blood in the opening scenes – as he returns, victorious, from battle – that, if nothing else, you can certainly believe he is ruthless.
He is aided and abetted throughout by Claire Foy as Lady Macbeth, who struggles with the accent in the opening scenes, but improves immeasurably as the play continues and ultimately turns in a believable, even rather moving performance.
Foy's problem does make one wonder why they decided to keep every single character Scottish – even those who, in the strange dystopian future Lloyd has chosen for a setting, could conceivably have been born somewhere else – if some of the actors found this challenging.
The dystopian setting is generally quite unobtrusive, though a little much is made of it here and there, particularly with the overused electric short-circuiting sound effects that pierce through the auditorium during scene changes.
Nonetheless, Soutra Gilmour’s design gives the stage an appropriately bleak and very stylised appearance that seems befitting, and there are a wealth of exciting new entrances and exits since the theatre’s re-design, including some well-utilised trap doors.
In addition to the dark, future-gone-wrong setting, the entire production is drenched in gore and plays up Macbeth’s constant undercurrent of horror, epitomised by a very nicely rendered ghost at the banquet scene.
If you’re looking for subtlety, you will not find it here – but this is a big production, full of crashes and shocks, with a wonderful central performance that elevates the whole thing from something entertaining into something near-unmissable.
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