The Barbican Pit welcomes back Shakespeare after a long absence as the Bristol-based Tobacco Factory brings its lucid and uncluttered Macbeth to town.

The Pit is the perfect venue for Andrew Hilton’s interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s most poetic plays. It’s not often that we get the chance to relish this play in such an intimate venue. We also rarely get the chance to see the full play (or nearly full, the Hecate scene is cut) as the recent trend has been to present it without an interval, so horror is piled on horror. Hilton’s version lasts two-and-a-half hours, meaning that Macbeth’s decline unfolds more slowly.

We even get a new opening, as this production begins with an additional scene - Cawdor’s execution - although I’m not convinced it adds anything to the play overall and, in fact, detracts from the power of the opening. A pity as this is an evocative trio of witches.

Gyuri Sarossy’s Macbeth is too timorous for me. You can hardly believe in him as the martial hero. But Sarossy brings out the mental disintegration of the character well, and he speaks the verse beautifully. Zoe Aldrich’s Lady Macbeth is well-judged, within seconds moving from the gracious hostess to the calculating murderer. It’s the ordinariness of these Macbeths that’s so chilling. There’s nothing to suggest the mayhem they’re about to unleash, save the children’s toys, covered with dust covers, hinting at the worst of domestic tragedies.

There are some good supporting performances too: from Jonathan Nibbs, an excellent Macduff, unassuming and softly-spoken until embittered by the murder of his family; and from Rupert Ward-Lewis, a strong Banquo.

This Tobacco Factory staging heralds the start of a Macbeth-fest in London with three other productions of the play on the way. It’s odds-on that none will be as unaffected and as clearly-spoken as this one.

- Maxwell Cooter

NOTE: The following review dates from February 2004 and this production’s original run in Bristol.

2004 sees the return of the Mac - at Bristol and up the way at Stratford - following on last year's alternative versions of the comedy As You Like It.

While Bristol-based Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory company (SATTF) has surfed a wave of critical acclaim over the five years since its foundation, the RSC has weathered stormy waters. Ironic then that, on the eve of their transfer to the Barbican vacated by the RSC, SATTF under director Andrew Hilton should be showing signs of listing while the RSC looks set fair.

The trademark strengths are present and correct: the customary clarity of verse-speaking, attention to text and a string of strong supporting roles. But these can't disguise the problems at the black heart of the play, the casting of Gyuri Sarossy - and, to a lesser extent, Zoe Aldrich - as the Macbeths.

Macbeth's tragedy is that he has "a fatal streak of goodness", as Auden put it, coupled with an imagination capable of apprehending the evil his ambition, if given rein, will unleash. (Lady Macbeth doesn't, until it is too late, and that is her tragedy). Macbeth, like Shakespeare's great tragedies, requires a great deal of the central protagonists. They undergo a long and terrible journey, and they have to take us with them. With Sarossy, we don't get very far from base.

As is practice with SATTF productions, props are kept to a minimum, focusing the attention solely on the actors themselves. The costumes are period Jacobean. The sole departure from practice is a temporary wooden gangway, which at least spared the actors having to get out of the way when, during the performance I saw, two groups of younger members of the audience charged out of the auditorium while the play was still in progress.

John Nicholas is a fine Duncan, every inch the authoritative but benevolent ruler. Rupert Ward-Lewis is also worthy of praise as a vigorous Banquo.

When Macbeth was staged by the RSC in the equally intimate The Other Place in the 1980s, starring Ian McKellen and Judi Dench in the title roles, the sense of evil was reportedly so strong that a priest sat in the audience every night armed with a crucifix. There’s little danger of that with this production. Clarity there may be but little darkness. This is Macbeth-lite.

- Pete Wood