Is James McAvoy too young to play Macbeth?

Shakespeare's blood-soaked king has traditionally been portrayed by far older actors, says Michael Coveney

When baby-faced 33-year-old James McAvoy, star of the X-Men movies, Atonement and The Last King of Scotland, takes to the specially reconfigured stage of the Trafalgar Studios in London, this Saturday, he will be the youngest Macbeth in living memory.

Is there any justification for this? By the end of the play, his way of life has fallen into "the sere, the yellow leaf, and that which should accompany old age, as honour, love, obedience, troops of friends," he says, "I must not look to have."

But there is no evidence to insist on his age in the play and the action covers an extended passage of time which could be 10 or even 20 years.And Macbeth could anyway be merely anticipating his old age, not describing its reality. Moreover, the play is easily susceptible to a flexible notion of middle-age, and often inhabited by actors in their late 30s (Nicol Williamson, Ian McKellen, Jonathan Pryce); the late Jon Finch, though, was just 28 when he starred in Roman Polanski's blood-boltered, somewhat hysterical, 1971 movie. On the other hand, Patrick Stewart was a fit-looking 67-year-old, certainly the oldest Macbeth since the Victorian era, when playing a great tragic role was an indication of status rather than suitability.

The key factor is the credibility of the Macbeths as a married couple in a desperate, then disintegrating, relationship. In Stewart's case, in Rupert Goold's 2007 production for the Chichester Festival Theatre, his Lady M was the vivacious Kate Fleetwood, an exotic young trophy wife who urged on her husband in their castle abattoir.

The old question in Shakespearean scholarship was, "How many children had Lady Macbeth?" She talks of giving suck and knowing "how tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me," yet Macduff, whose family is wiped out by the monster, states simply in response to hearing this terrible news, "He has no children."

Macbeth's anguish lies in the fact that all these murders will have been committed to no avail, no son of his succeeding. And it is that much scarier when the couple are younger, as are McAvoy and his partner in crime, Claire Foy.

In 1995 Mark Rylance was a 35-year-old shaven-haired Macbeth, partnered by a young Jane Horrocks; this was an odd, cultist, reading of the play in which Horrocks peed (for real) every night in the sleep-walking scene, until the stage-management would clean up after her no longer.

That version, at Greenwich Theatre, had the effect of making this callous, taboo-breaking couple even more strange and isolated, and explained their separate nose-dives into despair all the more piquantly precisely because they were young.

Laurence Olivier was 45 at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1955, Antony Sher was 50 at the RSC in 1999, and Peter O'Toole, in a disastrous 1980 Old Vic revival, a chaotically rumbustious 48.

McAvoy is Scottish, which often helps, as indeed is Tom McGovern, who also opens in the role this week for the Guildford Shakespeare Company. But McGovern is 50 years old. Kenneth Branagh will be 53 when he plays Macbeth at the Manchester International Festival in July.

McAvoy, who has not been on stage for three years, may have the hardest task of all in matching Macbeth the psychotic warrior with a portrait of a less than ideal young husband in a carnal marriage dogged by sad secrets.

'Macbeth', Trafalgar Studios, London SW1 (0844 871 7632) 9 February to 27 April; 'Macbeth', Holy Trinity Church, Guildford (01483 304384) to 23 February

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