THEATRE / The hollow man: Paul Taylor on Richard Eyre's production of Macbeth at the Olivier

Prophecies, as Macbeth amply demonstrates, should be met with a certain caution. So I should have been more on my guard when friends and colleagues confidently predicted that I'd be hankering for the exit during Richard Eyre's new Olivier staging of the tragedy, a production that opened, to a generally hostile press, a fortnight ago while I was on holiday.

True, the first few minutes did not bode well for a foiling of that forecast. Even before he meets the witches, this version sends out strong pre-emptive signals that Alan Howard's Macbeth is both murder-minded and doomed. The hags' private conference in the first scene takes place behind a curtain that shoots away when they pronounce the hero's name to reveal Howard standing in a circle of magically produced flame. It's not just that the giant hob effect looks faintly ridiculous, as though Macbeth had got mixed up in some madly misconceived fuel advert. What's worse is that this initial stage picture makes the witches' forthcoming success look like a fait accompli.

As the evening progressed, however, I found myself caught up more and more in the dark, imaginative vision that Eyre offers of the play, and increasingly impressed by Alan Howard's harrowing, vocally magnificent account of the hero. It's a production that unsettlingly blurs the division between inner and outer worlds and between one scene and another. The witches are, of course, supernatural and objective, for Banquo sees them too. But when Howard first confronts them, there is a wonderful half-horrified, half-exultant glint of recognition in his unfixed eyes. These beings are actual but they are also, his expression tells you, personifications of his darkest desires; hence, the intense moral vertigo.

One gauge of Macbeth's decline is that whereas the witches set the tragedy in train by coming to him, for their second encounter he is forced to seek them out, thus advertising his ignominious dependence. That isn't what happens here, or at least not quite, since Macbeth sits slumped at his table in the castle and what follows looks both like an invasion of his insomnia by the forest, the hags and the apparitions, and like racked mental travel, conducted horribly alone. The supernatural cabaret has, under Eyre's supervision, some authentically creepy touches: for example, the vision which tells the hero to fear none of woman born is in the shape of Lady Macbeth, the childless woman sentimentally cradling a tiny baby - a sick joke which strikes deep.

It's arguable that the unremitting blackness of the Scotland presented here too pronouncedly replaces the Caledonian climate with Macbeth's inner weather. And it's certainly true that Anastasia Hille's sexy young slip of a Lady Macbeth only scratches the surface of the role. What haunts the imagination, though, is Howard's depiction in the final acts of a hollowed- out man who seems to have split in two: one part still just about able to wince in puzzlement at the other's dazed inability to feel. In 'I 'gin to be aweary of the sun' I've never seen that weariness, nor the futility of his evil, better conveyed. In the fight with Macduff at the end, where the blows are timed to spookily predetermined sound effects, there's a terrible sense of a man realising just what script he is acting out, and then wearily acquiescing. True to the production's opening, he seems as much victim as bloody butcher. Controversial but impressive: salutary, too, for a critic to attend a panned show that was packed, with people queuing for returns.

'Macbeth' continues at the National Theatre, London SE1 (071-928 2252).

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