In the opening scenes of the West Yorkshire Playhouse production, the oddly unheroic bearing and speech of Macbeth gives rise to fears that this might be Macbeth - Without the Thane. However, the first appearance of Michelle Fairley’s compelling Lady Macbeth focuses attention and finally Ian Brown’s production completely justifies itself on its own terms.
This is a brisk, unfussy production which lasts only two and a half hours including interval, despite presenting a pretty full version of the text: the only sizeable cuts are of the spurious (the Hecate scene) and the extraneous (the English Doctor). Coherent and intelligible, it is, in particular, a splendid piece of story-telling for first-time Shakespeareans, always numerous in a Macbeth audience.
All aspects of design and production are thoroughly integrated. Ruari Murchison’s evocative designs allow only the occasional burst of red (Lady Macbeth’s costume, a final burst of blood-red across the skyline) to break up a bleak world of blacks, greys and browns. Lighting designer Guy Hoare isolates the odd patch of light amid the surrounding blackness and swirls of mist, the actual limits of the stage blurred in the gloom. With a stage empty apart from spiral staircases and (for Macbeth’s court) a massive cross-cum-dagger, Brown uses the space and the undefined sense of distance to epic effect.
There is, however, nothing epic about the numbers in the crowd scenes, for Brown chooses to take on Macbeth with a cast of 12. This has its drawbacks – Malcolm’s proclamation scene is distinctly underpopulated – but helps to create a real sense of ensemble. The witches (two male, one female) take several parts in the main action, with Frances Albery showing great intensity and control as both Lady Macduff and the Gentlewoman. Andy Hockley has the chance to enjoy himself as a genuinely funny Porter after parading the benign dignity of Duncan. Matthew Flynn disappoints as Banquo, partaking of that inexplicably unsoldierly opening, but works well as a notably uneasy Doctor.
Characterisations are generally straightforward, with no attempt to solve such puzzles as Ross’s allegiance or the identity of the Third Murderer, but Antony Byrne (Macduff) and Phil Cheadle (Malcolm) deserve much credit for managing to animate the notorious lie-detector scene at the English Court.
At times overshadowed by Fairley’s passionate and ultimately agonised Lady Macbeth, David Westhead’s unusually mature Macbeth remains a conundrum. Lacking the stature for the part, he nevertheless projects evil convincingly and is horribly effective when taking literally Lady Macbeth’s reference to his “fit”.