When and how and where shall we three meet again?

THEATRE
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IF YOU need to cut a Shakespeare play for performance you don't have to mess about with a line here or there. You can take the Stephen Unwin approach and go for something big. King Lear without the storm. Henry V without Agincourt. Or, as in Unwin's production for the English Touring Company, Macbeth without the witches. "When shall we three meet again?" they ask in the text. Good question. Not ever - or not here, anyway.

In Unwin's challenging production the weird sisters are disembodied voices. We hear them from the sides of the auditorium, delivering only a fraction of their speeches. The perplexed Macbeth (Paul Higgins) addresses the witches as "you imperfect speakers". The speakers in question belong to the Lyric Hammersmith's sound system.

Touring productions are often forced to economise, so it's no surprise that the Scottish court is thinly populated. When the Macbeths throw a banquet to celebrate the husband's coronation there are fewer guests at the feast than you'd find at an average dinner party. More damagingly, when Lady Macbeth (Hilary Lyon) sleepwalks, neither the Doctor of Physic nor the Gentlewoman are there to witness it. As for battles, there's little contest. Macbeth appears to be the only guy fighting on his side.

Unwin uses Elizabethan costumes and an uncomplicated set - a screen with slide projections of skies - that lifts away for the interior scenes to reveal a row of candles. He minimises the physical dimensions of his production to such an extent that you begin to wonder why he isn't doing it on the radio. Then you realise that he's determined to bring us a playwright worth listening to, with enough scenery, music and ideas embedded in the verse. Instead of Unwin's Macbeth, he's going to give us Shakespeare's. This means he doesn't run music under soliloquies or drown out speeches with sound effects. Nor does he erect an imaginary fourth wall between the actors and the audience. The outstanding virtue of this production is the commitment it brings to making Macbeth intelligible.

This is why it wouldn't work as radio. Half its energy comes from the protagonists' compelling desire to explain themselves to the audience. The Macbeths like nothing better than to approach the edge of the stage and take us into their confidence. Sometimes this borders on stand-up, sometimes on therapy. Higgins is a fine, deliberating Macbeth, managing to combine designer stubble and a shiny breastplate. He clenches and un- clenches his hands, shifts from foot to foot, and thinks one thing - tch, tch - then another. He has a troubled charm and, with his ironic Scots accent, you think he'll either break down or break into a Billy Connolly anecdote.

For Macbeth, the "imaginary powers" - the witches, apparitions, and show of eight kings - hover in a space above the audience's heads. Hilary Lyon actually holds out her hands to the stalls - as if we were spirits - and asks them to unsex her here. (No one volunteers.) We follow her train of thought so closely that we know exactly why she faints at the castle, why she interrupts Macbeth at the banquet, and why she disintegrates.

This upfront relationship with the audience lets the play take place less on the actual stage and more in the charged space between actors and audience. Once you come to terms with the early wounds that Unwin inflicts on the text, you find his approach allows line after line to spring to life. Unusually, you leave the theatre with the words, and not the set changes, revolving in your head.

If there was a prize for the most topical play currently running in the West End, then Wilde's An Ideal Husband would be a serious contender. The subject matter is spot-on: political sleaze, scandal and the gap between public and private morality. Anyone who watches Newsnight will recognise An Ideal Husband.

In Peter Hall's marvellous production, the connection, for instance, between money and respectability is deftly made by the huge golden coin that hangs in front of Carl Toms's set during the act breaks. The profile of Queen Victoria reminds us not only how she stamped her image on the age, but how Victorian values require the backing of hard cash.

Hall has revived his 1992 production, this time at the Haymarket, where the play first opened 101 years ago to the month. It couldn't be more appropriate. The gilded splendour of the refurbished auditorium is matched by a 24-carat cast.

Martin Shaw plays Lord Goring with enchanting ebullience. His eyebrows jump up and down. His eyes roll languidly from side to side. His voice is fruitier than a market stall. His stomach alone - which he carries with the care of a pregnant woman - is a fitting tribute to the generous nature of Wilde's vision. There's nothing brittle or cut-glass about Goring: whether Shaw is spinning paradoxes, offering wise advice or fretting over the lack of triviality in his button-hole, he does so with an ampleness that borders on the saintly.

Hall encourages his cast to play Wilde to the hilt. This is a gloriously ripe production and the company manager will have to watch that it doesn't ripen any further. As the under secretary for foreign affairs ("Truth is very complex ...") David Yelland is as clipped as a privet hedge. While Anna Carteret as Mrs Cheveley - wearing too much rouge and not enough clothes, as Lord Goring points out - is gorgeously malign as the woman who blackmails the politician. For wit and humanity, eloquence and elegance, it's hard to imagine a more enjoyable evening. And the way the plot prefigures Wilde's own rapid downfall is as melancholy as the snatches of Elgar.

The Black Mime Theatre Company has brought Dirty Reality 2 to the London International Mime Festival. The programme contains a questionnaire. How would you rate the show? Fair. Additional comments? Brave idea, tackling a subject like mixed-race children, and using mime, dance, playground taunts and lyrical songs. The anger and confusion came over very strongly. But a bit short on detailed incidents that make the argument for you. Short, that is, on dirty reality.

'Macbeth': Lyric, W6 (0181 741 2311), to 17 Feb. 'An Ideal Husband': Haymarket, SW1 (0171 930 8800). 'Dirty Reality': Cochrane, WC1 (0171 242 7040) to 3 Feb.

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