THEATRE / Smile, and smile, and be a villain

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IN ADRIAN Noble's 1986 production of Macbeth the thane was played by the fearsome Jonathan Pryce, who had clearly had his eye on Duncan's job long before the monarch walked into the trap. His successor, in Noble's new version, is Derek Jacobi, a star excelling in extrovert roles who has yet (even as Richard III) to communicate a sense of danger.

Pryce presented the story of a man already programmed for murder, and needing only the smallest pressure to tip him over the edge. His was the tragedy of a special case. If any ruling idea emerges from the new show it is that Macbeth's tragedy can happen to anybody. Given the right malignant circumstances, Everyman can become the enemy of mankind.

In outline, that is the message of this production. Macbeth and Banquo, both clearly good chaps, stagger on in festive mood and receive the witches' tidings as though seeing a trio of pink elephants. Macbeth seriously tries to call the plot off, but succumbs to his sexually manipulative wife. By now, hitherto unsuspected dark forces are taking possession of his mind; and by degrees, the boyishly gregarious hero calcifies into a moribund pariah, still laughing, but only at the idiot tale of earthly existence.

Look at the performance in detail, though, and the outline vanishes. Jacobi's open-hearted soldier is also a machiavellian actor (leading the applause for Malcolm's election); his increasing hardness is matched by his increasing vulnerability (as late as the cauldron scene you find him nuzzling for comfort into a passing messenger); and finally this clapped-out warlord regains all his original valour in the fight with Macduff. What Jacobi achieves, thanks largely to his evocation of inner horrors reinforced by a style of delivery that charges iambic lines with sprung rhythm, is to reclaim Macbeth as a hero. Attention always focuses on him; what happens to him matters more than what happens to anyone else; even when organising the massacre of Macduff's family he retains his personal charm. The man who cancels his bond with humanity still commands the sympathy of the audience. I think this is a morally indefensible reading.

Following his searching 1986 version, Noble's production is hardly more than a sketch. Ian MacNeil's set consists of a mirrored side door, a ladder and a hydraulic bridge - all used for passing effects, without establishing any sense of place or coherent design principle. The heath: thunder and lightning. The England scene: a snatch of welcoming birdsong. The cauldron scene: the witches take over the banqueting table and await Macbeth who has to gain admittance by knocking on his own front door. Among an array of blankly generalised performances from such usually rewarding actors as Michael Siberry (a roaring Macduff) and Denys Hawthorne (a beaming Duncan), the voice of Marjorie Yates, as first Witch, cuts through with a note of embittered personal experience: here was one character you wanted to know more about. Cheryl Campbell's Lady Macbeth begins as a fatally voluptuous consort and ends as a simian grotesque skittering up the ladder with her night-light. In the central scenes, she is wrong- footed by the production; which pairs her with a spouse even less imaginative than she is, and puts her through a process of status reversal in the pre-banquet duologue, only to restore her husband-taming powers after the appearance of Banquo's ghost. No doubt there will be improvements before the show reaches Stratford.

Wildest Dreams, with which Alan Ayckbourn makes his RSC debut, remains the brilliant but unbelievable piece which I saw in Scarborough two years ago (some of the same excellent cast feature in the author's new production). As always, Ayckbourn wins with the specifics. He is writing about disappointed and frustrated people who take refuge in dreams, but you don't notice that stale old theme as you watch them seated round a table playing Dungeons and Dragons - with Stanley (Barry McCarthy), a miserably married English teacher transformed into Alaric the Wise One, and his taciturn protege Rick changed from an abandoned teenager to Hirwin, the silent battle-warrior.

Despite the sneers of Stanley's ghastly brother-in-law, the team might have carried on the game for ever, but for the arrival of a new player - a runaway wife who persuades them to quit the Desert of Disappointment and confront their arch- enemy Barlach, and then to challenge the ogres in their everyday lives. Even by Ayckbourn's standards, the intercutting of these four separate dramas is a tour de force of comic organisation. Marcie, the inexhaustibly gushing catalyst (Sophie Thompson), may be a mechanical figure, but how - with the weight of mechanics she has to carry - could she be anything else? The others are all too pitifully human: Stanley's domestically suffocated wife (Brenda Blethyn) plunging from crazed jealousy into infantile regression; or Rick (Jenna Russell) sobbing 'I wanted to be brave', when she is beaten up by Marcie's sadistic husband. But in scenes like that, there is no difference between life and board-games; and what depresses me about the piece is Ayckbourn's increasing tendency to forswear humdrum reality for a world polarised between the bad and the weak, where, if anything can be solved, it is only by smashing some villain's face in.

Disappointed and frustrated people continue their fantasy lives in Mary Agnes Donoghue's Me & Mamie O'Rourke and this time nothing obstructs your view of a stale old theme. Here, in a ramshackle Los Angeles basement, Louise slouches around in green wellies dreaming of fame as a clothes designer while her unemployed architect husband systematically demolishes the property. Enter Louise's best friend Bibi, a cook with aspirations as an animal behaviourist, and the stage is set for an anthology of buddy routines. They prop up each other's success, reminisce over past times, flatter each other, get drunk, experiment with kissing, slaughter each other with home truths. Periodically their flow is interrupted by the apparition of Louise's fantasy lover or another deluge of rubble down the stairs. Otherwise the narrative marks time until the trio acknowledge themselves as failures and go their separate ways.

This is American comedy at its laziest (Why doesn't Louise realise her husband is having an affair? How can Bibi, the cook, spend all day gossiping?). Its arrival in the West End can only be explained by the casting of Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French; but why they settled on a piece of such low comic voltage still needs explanation.

No such mystery surrounds the casting in Peter Hall's revival of Pam Gems's Piaf. At the RSC 15 years ago, it came over as a sketchy, but authentic portrait of a gutter genius, whose gift had to be taken on trust. That has now been put right. The surrounding play looks flimsier than ever (with the irresistibly foul- mouthed exception of Wendy Morgan as the heroine's life-long pal). Its centre is masterfully occupied by Elaine Paige, ageing inch by inch from a frisky young tart to the bandy-legged wraith of the drug years; and delivering the songs as no one has done since the lady herself.

'Macbeth', Barbican, 071-638 8891. 'Wildest Dreams', 071-638 8891. 'Me & Mamie O'Rourke', Strand, 071-930 8800. 'Piaf', Piccadilly, 071-867 1118.

(Photograph omitted)