Macbeth, Almeida

The very prototype of a sad, co-dependent couple
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Macbeth is a killer role in more senses than one and has left many distinguished actors sobbing over their reviews.

Macbeth is a killer role in more senses than one and has left many distinguished actors sobbing over their reviews.

But in John Caird's quietly intense, if too slowly paced, production, Simon Russell Beale seems to be as much in his element with the part as a haggis on Burns' Night. Physically, this tubby individual may not be everyone's idea of a ruthless military commander (the only thing he looks to have raided is the fridge); spiritually, though, he penetrates Macbeth's mind and nervous system more searchingly than any performer since Ian McKellen back in the 1970s.

The witches in this version are rather posh, more Edith Sitwell-like than the usual bag ladies. And it's clear that Macbeth's ambition long predates his fateful meeting with them.

Brilliantly filling in the gaps on what it is about their marriage that makes the Macbeths so murderously responsive to temptation, Russell Beale and the splendid Emma Fielding show you a couple who have fallen into the co-dependency trap after the death of their baby. You feel that they love, but do not like, one another and that the relationship has a hermetic, stifling quality because they are ill-at-ease in courtly circles and lack the safety valve of friends. He wants the crown for her, she for him - a ghastly crossed-wires situation which is bound to lead to desperate recriminations afterwards.

These temperamental outsiders are evidently more used to throwing tiny tantrums than parties. The black comedy of the social disaster of their first drinks reception is heightened because Russell Beale notices the ghost of Banquo a few moments earlier than normal. He almost dares the spectre to return by pointedly bellowing into the wings a toast to "our dear friend Banquo, whom we miss/Would he were here!"

Max Stafford-Clark's site-specific promenade production of the play, now in Wilton's Music Hall, is sharper on social context. In transferring the proceedings to the bloody tribalism of Africa, he solves the problem of the witches who become plausible as voodoo spirit-mediums keen on getting in with the coming man. Caird's Jacobean-dress production scores highly on the tragedy's existential aspects.

In a chilling sequence just before the interval Macbeth beadily peers into the eyes of Lady Macduff as she dies in emotional and physical agony. It's as though this soldier who has killed many men on the battlefield is seeking the answer to a deep question with his new, clinical, curiosity about terminal pain. But he's disappointed in his search and, from then on, retreats into a kind of private bunker, appalled by the nothingness to which he has come. Russell Beale convinces you that this limbo is more hellish than hell and you never lose the ability to empathise.

He has always excelled at portraying people with a corrosive sense of exclusion. Macbeth degenerates into a man who can only cope by, as it were, excluding himself from himself ("To know my deed, 'twere best not know myself"). Russell Beale charts this shutting down with a haunting, exhausted and hushed inwardness as he sits centre stage waiting for the end. Here the thrust from Macduff that finishes him off is welcomed as an assisted suicide and, once he knows he's a goner, Russell Beale dissolves in a ghastly fit of laughter. When this hero cries "Enough!" it's in the tone of trying to stop someone from continuing with a killing joke.

Not a great production, but a masterly Macbeth.