Sometimes plays are like London buses: coming in twos and threes. But the only things that Edward Kemp’s production of Macbeth has in common with Rupert Goold’s at Chichester are an interval and a Slavonic dance in the first act - and, whereas the Chichester dance is in keeping with the sombre production values, this Regent’s Park one came out of nowhere.
The dance is just one of several mixed elements in the Open Air production, which starts with soldiers fighting with machine guns and ends with an old-fashioned sword fight. The style leaves something to be desired, the Scottish soldiers appear with tartan scarves dangling from the waistbands of their trousers, as if they were on their way to a Bay City Rollers’ reunion gig. The opening, however, is the best part of the night, with the weird sisters remaining on set to mutilate the dead sergeant and eagerly seize the discarded head of the rebel Macdonald.
I was looking forward to this production: the Regent’s Park setting, with its low-hanging trees and accompanying birdsong, should have been perfect. And, propitiously, the performance I attended was on a night rainy enough to emphasise the gloom, but not enough to halt the production.
Yet – and the rain can’t be blamed - the production fails to catch fire. Jon Bausor’s set, based on several large metal containers, looks more like an industrial wasteland, and despite there being a ready-made sylvan backdrop to stand for Birnham Wood, Kemp has the English army emerge from the auditorium.
Still, the main problem is that a low-key Anthony Byrne conveys neither the martial prowess that makes Macbeth such a feared hard man nor any sense of a tyrant in the making. In fact, once enthroned, his speech becomes more and more camp – particularly in the scene with the two murderers, as he invites them to sit next to him, before daintily crowning one with his own coronet.
Byrne receives little support from Sarah Woodward’s Lady Macbeth, who is far too one-dimensional. From the start, she’s an abrasive presence, with no hint of the guilty conscience that emerges in the sleep-walking scene. And while it’s laudable to see Peter Duncan trying to cast off his Blue Peter image, his Macduff would struggle to strike terror into an old woman, let alone a despot. Only David Peart’s Duncan, while perhaps being a bit too much of a genial old buffer, manages to muster any sort of presence.
In the past few years, there have been several productions of Macbeth that have re-examined the play. It’s bad luck that this one has opened at the same time as Goold’s radical interpretation, which for all its faults, offers a compelling study in tyranny. This offers little new: a real disappointment.