Macbeth, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

A land-speed record for treacherous terrain of this most difficult of plays
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The Independent Culture

Jerry Hall got herself into the Guinness Book of World Records recently by hurtling round London's theatreland and making SAS-style cameo appearances in no fewer than six different 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 under two hours and 10 minutes, without an interval, this show must hold the land-speed record for covering the treacherous terrain of a tragedy that's an incontestable masterpiece on the page but notoriously difficult to pull off on the stage.

It's even faster than Greg Doran's celebrated 1999 production, which I once described as moving with the murderous swiftness of a slasher's knife.

Alas, Cooke's staging - set in vaguely Edwardian times - is not remotely so incisive. An oddly old-fashioned affair, it demonstrates how a piece of theatre can be brisk without any real momentum and come across as mostly dutiful, despite all the determined intimations of urgency.

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 in which they were performed: 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 much harder to create an unnerving atmosphere of being trapped in someone else's nightmare, after the hero, having committed regicide, subordinates Scotland to his increasingly egotistical agenda.

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, serrated and (if need be) nervily 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 several volumes too many and her lines are chopped up with oh-so-melodramatic pauses. The wail she lets out in the sleepwalking scene would have any person of spirit chuckling into their programme.

One of our greatest verse-speakers and an always lean and sexy presence, Greg Hicks, in the title role, has some wonderful riffs when he inflects Macbeth's later soliloquies with a "this is all so beyond a joke that it's a joke" tone of exhausted irony.

He's a dimmed star, stuck in a production that thinks you can do the terrifying succession of apparitions at Macbeth's second meeting with the (here very dull) witches as a naff succession of talking passport photographs projected on smoke.

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

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