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Theatre: Bloody, bold and resolute at last

GREG DORAN'S new production of Macbeth, starring Anthony Sher and Harriet Walter, moves with the murderously incisive swiftness of a slasher's knife. Sweeping by in just 130 minutes without an interval, it offers an object lesson in the difference between mere speed and exciting momentum in the theatre.

In this staging, with its unnerving drumbeat punctuation, everything feels nightmarishly impelled onwards by what precedes it, a revealing contrast to the Peter Hall Julius Caesar a few seasons back which set out to demonstrate the virtues of velocity in Shakespeare but which, lacking this sense of hurtling psychological propulsion, just seemed like some dubious entry in a bizarre verse-speaking race.

Doran's staging may dowse the stripped-back Swan Theatre in darkness and envelope the audience in the atmosphere of a haunted house, but its own sane intelligence shines out from the hero's first appearance.

When Macbeth and Banquo arrive on the scene from the supposed heat of battle to encounter the witches you don't feel, in most productions, that they've emerged from anything more strenuous or unhinging than a brisk round of golf. Not here. Dressed in mud-cased modern combat gear, Sher's Macbeth and Ken Bones' Banquo enter hoisted like heroes on the shoulders of their chanting comrades and Sher, laughingly mad-eyed and with his blood up, lets you see that, for Macbeth, this virtual civil war in Scotland has been a liberating experience. Warfare has shown him that hierarchy can be questioned and this has uncorked the dreadful genie of his ambition.

You quickly see, too, the way that the Macbeth's marriage is reignited by the vertiginous prospect of snatching the crown. Keeping a grim white- knuckled control of her troublingly roused nervous energy, Harriet Walter is the best Lady Macbeth I have seen since Judi Dench. The suppressed hysteria and the erotic release in collaborative violence are at once ruthlessly unsentimentalised in Walter's performance and achingly sad.

She tenderly washes the dirt of battle off her husband as though he were the little boy she might have had; each of her actions, amplifying a famously terse text, seem to gesture to acres of painful hinterland. And, at the end of the scene with Banquo's ghost (here conjured up purely by Sher's crazed reactions) she subsides into terrible little sobbing laughs with her husband that seem to be torn from her by the roots. It's like a ghastly parody of their former intimacy.

Sher delivers, by comparison, a technically accomplished but rather external- seeming performance. The pity of the fact that the psychological consequences of their crime siphons them onto separate tracks is muffled if Macbeth looks insufficiently connected to his spouse beforehand.

There are some excellent creepy effects, not least when the drunken Liverpudlian porter, aping an "equivocator" lets rip with a mean impersonation of Tony Blair. The apparitions bulge through cement patches in the back wall, their features masked and straining against the material as though they were stocking-faced terrorists.

Shudderingly, Macbeth's reaching for the invisible dagger is echoed in the climactic fight with Macduff, as he impotently struggles to disarm his nemesis. Only here, the dagger is all too real and ends up in the hero's guts. By and large, then, a richly rewarding reading of a tragedy that is notoriously difficult to pull off.

Paul Taylor

In repertory (01789 295623). A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper