Review: Macbeth (Chichester Festival Theatre)

Chichester’s production of the Scottish play reunites director, lead actor and Shakespeare

Dervla Kirwan and John Simm
Dervla Kirwan and John Simm
© Manuel Harlan

There is a large Macbeth-shaped shadow cast over Chichester in the form of Rupert Goold's magnificently bold reimagining of Shakespeare's tale of bloodthirsty ambition in 2007. Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood's terrifying pairing strode forth to West End and Broadway acclaim with a filmed version following shortly after. Twelve years later it is in Chichester's main house that the weird sisters work their magic, but sadly with few of the thrills needed to make the blood curdle.

Paul Miller's production is slick and assured, and with the continuous underscoring of haunting sound effects and music by Max Pappenheim it manages to create a tension throughout the first act that promises great things. This unravels pretty quickly after the interval, leaving one unfulfilled and desperate for the sight of some blood.

Simon Daw's impressive design is cleverly impactful, with good use of projection on transparent screens above a glass stage. The clinically modern feel of this almost corporate-like glazing dramatically splits open to reveal the play's real earthiness beneath, as bodies are submitted to the ground in a uniquely gratifying way. But it feels too clean and too perfect – at odds with the base humanity of the play and its supernatural undertones.

John Simm's Macbeth – like much of the rest of the production – is calm, assured and appears to be in full control at every moment. He speaks the verse with such ease and presence that he brings comfort to the stage amongst others that have a tendency to shout at times. The problem is that he never fully breaks free from that surety and this leaves him appearing detached and disconnected from the underlying feelings of ambition, paranoia, fear and anger. As the English forces approach under Malcolm's command (a gender-swapped Beatriz Romilly), he remains sedentary in his throne. There is no great war or even much fight in this Macbeth.

Dervla Kirwan is equally word perfect in delivery and is a commanding performer, but once again there is a restraint that stops any real belief in the abandoned ambition she has for her husband to become king. Her relationship with Simm's Macbeth is a dedicated but rarely passionate one.

There are mixed levels of support from the ensemble. Stuart Laing's Banquo is suitably strong and brooding with a quiet air of distrust, while Isabel Pollen impresses in her brief role as Lady Macduff. Roseanna Frascona, Leah Gayer and Lauren Grace as the witches are less supernatural and more wayward adolescents but do good work in their almost constant presence around Macbeth.

There is much to like about this production – with fine staging and technically proficient performances from its two stars, but it lacks the teeth and grit needed to evoke much in the way of necessary horror.