A ghost of a fine drama

IN JOHN Crowley's spartan West End production of Macbeth, there is a baffling and characteristically perverse staging of the celebrated scene in which a supper party, thrown by the newly crowned Macbeth, is disrupted when the butchered Banquo's ghost makes two appearances to the bloody tyrant. In the version originated here, we see Banquo being brutally battered to death and then, in an eerie dissolve, the banquet table descends and covers his corpse.

So far, so clever (he's the couple's hidden secret). The trouble is that in the subsequent scene, his spectre never actually emerges. So when Rufus Sewell's terrified Macbeth remonstrates with what looks like an empty stool, flings wine over it, and furiously stabs it, he seems to be going bonkers.

The perspective of the theatre audience is scarcely different from that of the embarrassed guests, whereas the drama of this brilliant episode depends purely upon the disparity between their view of the unfolding situation and ours. We know, chillingly, that it is not, or not only, in Macbeth's imagination.

If the ghost fails to materialise in the above scene, then so does any real sense of the horror and harrowing sadness of this tragedy in the production as a whole.

Rufus Sewell is a fine, sexy actor and elsewhere has moistened many a gusset with his Byronic smoulderings. But, stockier and more bullet-headed than of yore, he looks to be badly out of his depth in this killer-role, which has defeated an illustrious list of leading thespians from Peter O'Toole to Derek Jacobi.

Deploying a tight, husky voice, he wrenches the rhythms of the verse this way and that, and is either too indulgently slow and mannered or gabblingly fast. Listening to his speeches is like trying to study the beauties of an Old Master drawing while it's being dangled in a tearing, capricious wind. Shakespeare's characterisation of Macbeth is a masterly study in moral disintegration, but its supreme genius lies in the way the hero continues to excite an appalled human sympathy. "I `gin to be aweary of the sun" is one of the greatest lines in the canon, its drained music that of a man who has been hollowed out by experience. Not here, though, with a Macbeth who kicks the walls like a petulant schoolboy.

Matters would be helped if one could begin to believe in the hero's marriage to Sally Dexter's pneumatic, raven-tressed and significantly older Lady Macbeth. Dexter, too, can be a formidable actress. But here the crudeness of the direction defeats her. The unravelling of the couple's relationship, with the murder of Duncan as the watershed, is signalled with all the subtlety of a "Before and After" advert. First seen with her swelling bosoms barely confinable within a precipitously plunging neckline, Dexter appears, post-killing and Coronation, buttoned up to the nostrils. It's that telegraphic.

In a recent interview, Sewell quipped that "most Shakespeare productions do fail... at least with Macbeth, they have an excuse". A canny insurance policy: for, with its risibly uncreepy Oirish witches and its glassed- in and unthreatening apparitions, like exhibits from the V&A costume department, this production needs all the excuses it can find.

Paul Taylor

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