Macbeth, Almeida Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

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 slow-paced production at the Almeida, Simon Russell Beale penetrates Macbeth's mind and nervous system more searchingly than any performer since Ian McKellen in the 1970s.

The witches are more Edith Sitwell-like in demeanour 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 about what 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, and who love, but do not like, one another.

This pair of temperamental outsiders are evidently more used to throwing peevish tantrums than parties. The black comedy of their first drinks reception is heightened by some very funny variations on the norm. Here an outraged Macbeth actively invites the spectre to put in a second appearance by pointedly bellowing into the wings his toast to "our dear friend Banquo, whom we miss/ Would he were here!" He also mines the dark humour in the scene with the hired murderers. There's something grotesque about his shoulder-slapping sucking-up to the heavies. It's as if Macbeth, who can't find equivalent time to talk to his wife, is pathetically testing his new self-image as a wheeler-dealing villain.

Caird's Jacobean-dress production scores highly on the more existential aspects of the tragedy. There's a chilling sequence when 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 so many on the battlefield now seeks the answer to some deep human problem in his new clinical curiosity about terminal pain. But he's disappointed in his search and from then on he seems to retreat into an arid private bunker of the soul, appalled by the nothingness to which he has come.

Russell Beale convinces you that this hideous spiritual limbo is more hellish than hell and he never loses his grip on the audience's empathy. He has always excelled at portraying people who have a corrosive sense of exclusion, and his Macbeth degenerates into a man who can only cope by excluding himself from himself. Russell Beale charts this process of gradual shutting down with a truly 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 a form of assisted suicide, and once he knows that he's a goner, Russell Beale promptly dissolves in a dreadful fit of laughter. When this hero cries "Hold, enough!" it's in the tones of someone begging for relief while being told a killingly funny joke.

To 5 March (020-7359 4404)