Theatre: Going, going, gone to sleep

Macbeth Queen's, London Three Days of Rain Donmar Warehouse, London
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The Independent Culture
You don't often get a Shakespeare production in the West End, which may explain why, in the one interval for the first night of Macbeth, a member of the front of house staff urged us to return to our seats with the news that "Act Two is about to begin". By this time we had already seen Act Three; if they were taking us back to Act Two, we were in more trouble than we thought.

Audience members in the Upper Circle had greeted the start of the play with shrieks and cheers. "Grow up!" retaliated some dismal adult in the stalls. The explanation for the high spirits in the Upper Circle, and Shakespeare's presence in the West End, was the glamorous box-office appeal of Rufus Sewell. By the interval - I have to report - only coughs could be heard from the Upper Circle and some very grown-up people in the stalls had nodded off.

Some of the blame lies with Sewell. From the moment he enters, and encounters the witches, he presents us with two obstacles. One is his new haircut, which makes him look like Lovejoy. The other is his voice. Sewell barks out the lines from the back of his throat. In brief doses, this is harsh and macho, but it gives him no vocal range in the big speeches, and leaves him nowhere to go in the battle scenes in Act Five, when he really might need to bellow.

Very little that Sewell says in his soliloquies unfolds in front of, or is shared with, the audience. He ducks his head from side to side, his fingers tremble and at extreme moments, his face quivers blankly and his eyes bulge. The verse speaking is peculiar: he slips in an extra syllable when addressing the witches: "How now yoo-hoo secret black and midnight hags." It's lucky for us the witches don't wave and go "yoo-hoo" back.

As Lady Macbeth, Sally Dexter brings the same level of sexual heat that lit up her performance in Closer. Her opening speech is beautifully done. The Macbeths are well known for having one of the most successful marriages in Shakespeare but most of the time this Lady Macbeth is better when she's on her own. Her rich husky voice yearns for Macbeth before his arrival, as she slides one hand longingly between her legs. Dexter is a striking, sensual figure. She unties the front of her dress and summons the "murdering ministers" to her breasts. When Sewell does arrive, the sexual chemistry is piled on thickly without convincing us through any personal detail. He grabs her hair violently as they exit. This Lady Macbeth likes a bit of rough.

Most of the blame lies with the young director John Crowley. He directs this Macbeth as if he's in denial that it's playing on Shaftesbury Avenue. This is a low-budget production for the studio space at a regional rep. There are black flats on three sides. Harsh cross-lights throw the cast into uneven shadows, pitching them into gloom during some of their speeches. The table for the banquet descends from above and rests over the dead body of Banquo, leaving us to imagine his ghost will emerge from under the white tablecloth at any moment. Either that or he's down there tying up everyone's shoelaces. More worryingly still, Crowley fails to animate his cast when they are in larger groups: as they stand attentively, with hands on the hilts of their swords, they could be posing for a very slow- witted Victorian photographer.

There are some good touches. Peter Bayliss's Porter develops a whole ventriloquist's act: before opening the castle doors, he manages to smuggle in subversive ad-libbed comments in a high-pitched squeak, including a reference to Guy Fawkes, and a visual dig at theatre critics. I liked the way, too, that the pregnant Lady Macduff (Robin McCaffrey), is giving her son a bath before the murderers arrive. Bathtime is a neat location for a mother to be listening to her child's series of persistent and logical questions. In another deft touch, when the murderers do arrive, the boy thinks they are only play-acting, and joins in the fun. But these sharp psychological moments are a small consolation.

The season of American Imports at the Donmar goes out on a high with Richard Greenberg's stylish and witty Three Days of Rain. In 1995, a brother and sister meet up in New York to hear the contents of their late father's will. Their father was a famous, wealthy architect and they meet in the home he built, where the brother now wants to live. Three Days of Rain is unashamedly bourgeois in tone - a bitter and troubled comedy which displays uncommon structural daring.

It's also very well cast. Colin Firth plays the brother, Walker, with a plaintive tenseness that owes more to Alan Alda than Woody Allen. Firth speaks in that broken-backed truncated way that suggests he's grasping after something ineffably profound. Elizabeth McGovern plays his sister Nan who spends the first 20 minutes narrowing her eyes and wanting to strangle her brother for not turning up to the funeral. Their banter is brittle and culturally knowing.Their unstable Mum, for instance, is "more Tallulah than ever".

The play blossoms with the arrival of Pip, their cousin, a successful TV actor, played with gleaming self-assurance by David Morrissey. He pulls forward a high stool and introduces himself to the audience with the words: "Now me!" His differences with Firth provide the play's sparks. "Being in a good mood," he tells the Hamlet-like Firth in a killer line, "is not the same thing as being a moron".

Then, intriguingly, Act Two takes us back to 1960 and the same cast play the previous generation. McGovern is Lina the mother. Firth is Ned, the father. We see Lina and Ned fall in love during three days of rain. Morrissey is Theo, an architect and Ned's partner.

This time-switch works excellently in Robin Lefevre's captivating production. Three Days of Rain builds to a very Stoppardian conclusion (as seen in Arcadia and Indian Ink). In the second act the father begins the diary. In the first act, the son reads his father's diary. 35 years on, the father's words are wildly misinterpreted. The only loss that comes with Greenberg's time switch is that after the first act we lose Morrissey's weirdly wonderful performance as the good-humoured TV actor.

`Macbeth': Queen's, W1 (0171 494 5040), to 5 June; `Three Days of Rain': Donmar, WC2 (0171 369 1732), to 13 March.