Macbeth, RSC at the Swan Theatre, Stratford
Director Gregory Doran shows Scotland at a time of political and miltary unrest in this latest production of William Shakespeare's tragedy. Never has the piece been more relevant to today. This could be Kosovo, Sarajevo or any one of a number of places suffering from civil war or the ambition of a tyrant.
In this case, Anthony Sher takes on the title role, taking Macbeth from successful soldier to guilt-ridden dictator, battler turned broken man by his witches'-enduced ambition. For Doran, the role of the witches is emphatic. Their voices call out the opening lines into a completely black auditorium, setting up an eerie ambience which leads to faces struggling grotesquely to emerge from seemingly-solid walls.
Even the reappearance of the witches following the banquet, where Macbeth is haunted by Banquo's ghost, gives way to a supernatural chill. The dining tables begin to shake until the crockery falls crashing to the floor, before the tables are completely overturned to reveal the witches underneath.
Of course, trying to make sense of all this is the inimitable Harriet Walter as Lady Macbeth. Excited as a schoolgirl to read her fighting-machine husband is coming home, chilling as she calls for the spirits to unsex her and pitiful in madness, frantically washing her hands and groaning from the depths of her guilt, Walter offers the kind of staggering performance that can only come from those who have truly delved the depths of a character.
Sher and Walter are backed by a solid cast, notably Ken Bones' Banquo, Stephen Noonan's ranting alternative comedian Porter and Nigel Cooke as Macduff, fighting his own battle with grief upon hearing of the murders of his wife and children.
With modern dress and a minimalist set, designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis, Doran allows the text to speak for itself, few gimmicks required, except for the sporadic beating of drums in an almost wardance-like rhythm, and the aforementioned faces appearing in walls.
Overall, the effect of this production is not immediate. For all its pace, fire and tragedy, the impact takes a few days to really sink in. But steadily these images of Macbeth come back to haunt. And that, surely, is the greatest triumph.
The following WOS reviewer offers another, equally enthusiastic review.
Inevitably this will be known as Antony Sher's Macbeth, but in truth it's Gregory Doran's. Sher's fine central performance comes second to the brilliance of Doran's direction.
Instead of selfishly using Macbeth as a star vehicle for a charismatic actor, Sher places his considerable talents at the disposal of the director and company, and his central performance sits like a jewel in a complex crown. This production is at the same time intelligent and visceral, filled with both action adventure and deep reflection. Doran has cut those scenes which were probably later additions to Shakespeare's original play and the result is a taut, lean text which runs barely over two hours. It's played without an interval and rightly so - any break in this action would be unthinkable.
A programme note by the BBC foreign correspondent Fergal Keane points outs similarities between the Macbeths and Slobbo and Mira Milosevic, and the play is set in the 20th century war-torn Balkans. The three weird sisters naturally become Kosovan women - possibly gypsies - who dabble in folk-magic. This Balkan dimension gives rise to some powerful images, but Doran never pushes it too far, and there is far more to his production than this. He manages to communicate his crystal clear understanding of the structure of the play to the audience, and Banquo's young son Fleance, who has only half-a-dozen lines, becomes a pivotal focus as the person from whom the future Kings of Scotland will descend.
With minimal staging, powerful music and dramatic lighting, Doran evokes both the religious mystery of kingship and the powerful dark forces of evil at work. The apparitions shock and convince as rarely before. The Swan Theatre itself is another star of the evening. The entire building becomes Macbeth's castle and when the dead body of the murdered King Duncan is discovered the whole auditorium awakes, buzzing with excitement and fear, and the audience - surrounded by the action - share the full force of the horror.
Stephen Noonan plays the comic porter with attitude, his aggressive improvisations threatening the audience and forcing their involvement. Harriet Walter is a chilling Lady Macbeth, every bit Sher's equal. So coldly repulsive are both, it's impossible to feel sympathy for either. Only John Dougall's fine Malcolm and Nigel Cooke's Macduff engage the emotions in a positive way. Otherwise, it's all fear, pity and disgust - to the extent that we begin to distance ourselves and become detached. We see our own violent world at the end of the 20th century, but we don't want to be a part of it. Then for a few extraordinary moments, Sher breaks the mould and (for the only time in the play) speaks to the audience - directly and intimately. He assures us that life's but a 'brief candle', man 'a poor player' and history a meaningless 'tale told by an idiot', and miraculously, by this daring act of theatrical alienation, we are all hopelessly involved again.
Macbeth opened at The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 16 November 1999 and continues there in repertory until 18 March 2000; and at the Theatre Royal Brighton 24-29 January, and the Theatre Royal Bath 31 January-5 February, 2000.