Simon Russell Beale’s appearance in Macbeth has been eagerly awaited. Not least because he’s not the first actor one thinks of in the role of a man of action, a soldier consumed, and ultimately destroyed by it. But this is a very different Macbeth.
John Caird’s slow-moving production, full of silences, gives us Macbeth as a philosopher-warrior. The fearsome Macbeth that we’re introduced to in the second scene has long gone, in fact. One couldn’t imagine him even lifting a sword, let alone brandishing it.
Instead, we have a disenchanted nobleman. Russell Beale's Macbeth claims the crown with little enthusiasm, as if he’s aware that it’s the first step to the grave – but he seizes the opportunity anyway. Emma Fielding’s hard-faced Lady Macbeth looks as if she’s made of sterner stuff - but her mask falls away while sleepwalking. Never have I seen this played with so much anguish. She exits the scene clutching the hand of an imaginary child, as if haunted by the death of her child as much as Duncan’s death.
For this is a Scotland where life is nasty, brutish and short. The ghostly-looking weird sisters are not the witches of popular imagination, but three Fate-like characters who are silent witnesses to the many tragedies unfolding. The witchcraft element is played down: there’s no bubbling cauldron here. Macbeth is not enchanted by the sisters. But he knows that his destiny cannot be untangled from them: they are intertwined from the moment they meet.
Russell Beale's meets his end willingly: the “lay on Macduff” a plea for death. And as one of the sisters, Atropos-like, blows out a candle that lies flickering beside him, we see the passing away of someone, long wearied with life.
This is clearly Russell Beale’s show. His existential Macbeth slowly, slowly inches towards his inevitable fate. We’re reminded once again, what a superb verse speaker he is. But here, it’s not just the words that hit home. We’re struck by the silences as well, those unspoken moments that can presage real pain. When he asks the doctor how to cure a mind, there’s an ache there. He rolls the words around his tongue as if relishing a ten-year-old whisky.
There’s some excellent support from Fielding too, feeling the pain behind the iron-lady façade. Praise also for Paul Higgins’ noble Macduff, a particularly poignant figure, and for Silas Carson’s doomed Banquo, who exhibits a mistrust of Macbeth from the outset.
In truth, there’s not a poor performance here. This is far from a one-man show. There’s richness in all the performers, as the small cast brings out the misery in this too-human of tragedies. But ultimately, it’s the vision of Simon Russell Beale’s anguished title character edging inevitably towards death that makes the most compelling memory.
- Maxwell Cooter