Macbeth, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

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The Independent Culture

Jerry Hall got herself into The Guinness Book of Records by hurtling round London's theatreland, making cameo appearances in no fewer than six shows on the same night.

Jerry Hall got herself into The Guinness Book of Records by hurtling round London's theatreland, making cameo appearances in no fewer than six shows on the same night. Dominic Cooke's new production of Macbeth at Stratford stands a good chance of winding up in the same volume. Running at just less than two hours and 10 minutes, and without an interval, this show must hold the land-speed record for covering the treacherous terrain of a tragedy that's notoriously difficult to pull off on the stage. Alas, Cooke's staging - set in vaguely Edwardian times - is not remotely incisive. An oddly old-fashioned and dutiful affair, it demonstrates perfectly how a piece of theatre can be brisk without having momentum.

The production has the handicap of appearing on the main stage, in contrast to the two best RSC interpretations of Macbeth in our era, which drew strength from the intimacy of the spaces: Gregory Doran's in the Swan, and Trevor Nunn's mid-1970s account in the studio-sized Other Place. In the vast principal theatre, it's harder to create the unnerving atmosphere of being trapped in someone else's all-enveloping nightmare.

Some very good actors have fallen foul of the production's misguided tactics for conquering the problem. Most of all, Sian Thomas - an actress of highly-strung and (if need be) self-mocking intelligence - has evidently here been instructed to "fill the theatre" as Lady Macbeth with a performance that, when it is not reminding you of The Addams Family, is making you think of silent movies without the subtitles, or a Donizetti opera without the music. Her eyes speak volumes - a library of melodramas - and she chops her lines with off-puttingly self-conscious pauses. The curdled wail she lets out in the sleepwalking scene is laughable.

Greg Hicks, one of our greatest verse-speakers and an always lean and sexy presence, has some wonderful riffs when he inflects Macbeth's later soliloquies with a "this is all so beyond a joke, it's a joke" tone of exhausted, punch-drunk irony. He's a dimmed star, stuck in a production that thinks you can do the terrifying succession of apparitions at his second meeting with the witches as a naff succession of talking passport photographs projected on to smoke. One of the reasons that the sequence does not have the desired effect is that it bleeds meaning from Macbeth's appalled line: "What! Will the line stretch out to the crack of doom?" If the apparitions are, however fluidly, presented one by one, the idea of interminability is blunted.

Much better was having Banquo's troubled private musings about the witches' prophecies backed by a red-lit silhouette of Macbeth receiving homage from his new subjects, who each kneel before him and kiss his hand. That spectacle manages to penetrate the nervous system of nightmare.

Macbeth cannot work unless it is frightening. Here, the one thing that is genuinely scary is the lack of authentic fearfulness.

In rep to 2 October (01789 403403)

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