Theatre: A killing combination

Director Greg Doran and Antony Sher have proved to be a formidable RSC double-act. How will their relationship, both on- and off-stage, affect Macbeth?

Greg Doran has two unusual qualifications for directing Macbeth. He played Lady M when he was a schoolboy at a Jesuit establishment in Preston and he's the long-term partner of the actor Antony Sher, who assumes the role of the hero in the forthcoming RSC production. So, domestically and professionally speaking, Doran hasn't entirely washed his hands of the Lady M part. And that could be a considerable benefit when exploring a tragedy which is so acute on the overlap between married intimacy and criminal complicity.

So how was his own rendering of the "fiend-like queen". Did she affect red dress and raven tresses in the trusty Scotland's-answer-to-Cruella- de-Ville manner? "I remember wearing my mother's shoes and falling off the heels in my first scene," laughs Doran when we meet during his lunch break from the technical rehearsal.

Tossing the kind of luxuriant mane that is not so much follicly-challenged as follicly-challenging, he's warm, open, and highly articulate and doesn't seem to mind at all being dragged back to his boyhood. "There was a little stream just behind where we lived in Lancashire and I used to walk the dog there at night, saying Lady Macbeth's lines. At a time when I was dealing with things like my own sexuality, I found her articulation of hidden desires and ambitions weirdly empowering and liberating".

But there was no erotic tension, Doran reports, between himself and the "resoundingly heterosexual" youth who played Macbeth. You feel, though, that Cocteau might have rustled up quite a frisson-inducing scenario from the trip the two boys made to London where they delivered the murder scene to each other across the whispering gallery of St Paul's. Not surprisingly, after his many school Shakespeare performances (which included Lady Anne in Richard III but not, he regrets, any of the sexually ambiguous breeches roles), Doran's first instinct was to head into acting. Indeed, he met Sher while playing the bit part of Solanio to the other man's Shylock, an experience about which he has written an insightful, amusing essay.

The switch to directing was effected via an associate directorship at the Nottingham Playhouse and over the past decade Doran, now 40, has clocked up an increasingly impressive track record with the RSC. This year alone, he has staged critically acclaimed productions of The Winter's Tale on the Stratford main stage, Oroonoko (the Biyi Bandele adaptation of Aphra Behn's novel about slavery) and an excellent main stage production of Timon of Athens, a Shakespeare/ Middleton rarity that was a big enough gamble even before its scheduled star, Alan Bates, had to pull out because of a chest infection just two weeks away from previews.

The new Macbeth sees Doran and Sher returning to the Swan where they had a big hit three years back with a panache-packed production of Cyrano de Bergerac.

His last two Shakespeare productions have drawn great strength from the shrewdness of their setting. The Edwardian Winter's Tale portrayed a court that was a highly plausible breeding ground for Leontes' mad jealousy, both in its repressiveness and in the protective ring of fussing protocol - the ironic reverse of a cordon sanitaire - that surrounded the king, allowing him to indulge his disturbed fantasies undisturbed. Likewise, Timon of Athens was relocated to the Jacobean world of conspicuous consumption and homoerotic court favouritism such as obtained at the time of the play's composition. It afforded a very fresh sense of the essential loneliness of the hero, showing both the male domination of a society where the only women visible are whores and the cupboard love of his hangers-on.

On the subject of setting, Doran has a rule: "Never sacrifice resonance to relevance". Some updating becomes so detailed (he cites Trevor Nunn's Thatcherite Britain Timon) that "the metaphor is lost and people stop listening. But there are also productions where non-literal settings hijack the play just as badly. You don't know where you are."

With Macbeth, a top priority, along with securing Harriet Walter as Lady M, was being able to do the piece in the Swan Theatre rather than on the Stratford main stage "where you have to put a set and that means you've already made a statement". At the Swan, he argues, you don't have to go into rehearsal with the discovery process already cramped by a predetermined design. Its naturally stripped-back look allows the language to create the world and gives the audience the creepy sense of being enfolded in the Macbeth household.

There have been some very bizarre stagings of the play in recent years - supremely, the Mark Rylance production that transferred the proceedings to a Hare Krishna sect and gave us the thrill of seeing Jane Horrocks's Lady M peeing for real over the floor. Doran thinks the problem is that directors are often so anxious to create a plausible context for the supernatural that they neglect other vital considerations, such as conjuring up a world where kingship matters. As for the equivocal non-determinist function of the witches, he explains the nightmare nexus of temptation, superstition and ambition with a showbiz analogy. "Somebody stops you in the street and says `you know that film you've just done, well you're going to win the Oscar'. And you go home and say `I've just been told I'm going to win the Oscar'. Then there's a telephone call in which you're told `by the way, you've been nominated for the Oscar'. Do you fly out to Los Angeles and do all the corrupting hype or just stay and let the Oscar happen?"

Rehearsals, he reveals, began with the actors exploring their own deepest fears. "That really located the starting point of the play in ourselves," he says. In Woza Shakespeare!, their very readable, jointly written account of the Titus Andronicus they created at the Market Theatre, Johannesburg, Sher tells an anecdote about how Doran unnerved him one evening when the production was playing at the National Theatre. Doran came into his dressing room to announce, queasily, that both Adrian Noble and Terry Hands - past and present RSC artistic directors - were seated in the audience. The ensuing conversation then ran: "Thanks a bunch. Why the hell did you have to tell me?" "Why should I suffer on my own?" "Because you don't have to go out and do it."

Doran laughs when I say there are shades here of Macbeth before the murder of Duncan (Lady M as back-seat driver), but he looks relieved when I add that, unlike Lady M who is ambitious only for hubby, Doran's productions aren't distorted by favouritism. He can integrate the naturally dominant Sher into the proceedings more successfully than many other directors. He reckons he's discussed Macbeth as much, if not more, with Harriet Walter whose strengths make the play's earlier sweep "a genuine double act". He grins: "Tony sometimes blames me for neglecting him."

I met Doran on the day that the negative reviews began to hail down on the Nigel Hawthorne/ Yukio Ninagawa King Lear. He makes a nervous allusion to them and says: "The funny thing is that when we began working on The Winter's Tale, Antony and Cleopatra opened at the National [the notorious disaster with Alan Rickman and Helen Mirren] and there was a similar sense, not of Schadenfreude, but of just how difficult these plays are to do. And with both those productions, you thought `how can they fail?'"

The word "fail" tolls ominously in any discussion of Macbeth. "If we should fail?" cries the hero. To which the wifely reply is: "We fail!/ But screw your courage to the sticking-place/ And we'll not fail." But, then again, killing a consecrated monarch in cold blood is a doddle by comparison with achieving a successful production of this hexed masterpiece.

At the Swan, Stratford-upon-Avon (01789 403403) to 22 Jan; Brighton Theatre Royal (01273 328488) 25-29 Jan; Bath Theatre Royal (01225 448844) 1-5 Feb

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