First Night: A Macbeth that needs every excuse it can get

Macbeth Queen's Theatre London
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The Independent Online
IN JOHN CROWLEY'S spartan new West End production of Macbeth, there is a bafflingly and characteristically perverse staging of the celebrated scene in which a banquet given by the newly crowned Macbeth is disrupted thanks to two appearances of the butchered Banquo's ghost.

In the version we get here, Banquo is battered to death and then, in a dissolving of place and time, the banquet table descends over his corpse. So far, so clever. The trouble is that in the subsequent scene, the production renders his spectre visible to no one. So when Rufus Sewell's terrified Macbeth remonstrates with what looks like an empty stool, he seems to be genuinely bonkers.

The perspective of the theatre audience is no different from that of the embarrassed guests, yet the drama of this brilliant episode depends upon the disparity between their view of the situation and ours. If the ghost fails to materialise in this scene, then so does any real sense of the horror and harrowing sadness in this production.

Rufus Sewell is a fine, sexy actor and elsewhere has fluttered many a heart with his Byronic smoulderings. But, stockier and more bullet-headed than of yore, he looks badly out of his depth in this killer role. Deploying a tight, husky voice, he wrenches the verse this way and that, and is either too slow and mannered or gabblingly fast. Listening to it is like trying to study the beauty of a Leonardo drawing while it is dangled in a high wind.

Matters would be helped if one could believe in the hero's marriage to Sally Dexter's pneumatic and significantly older lady Macbeth. Dexter, too, is a formidable actress in the right circumstances. But here the crudeness of the direction defeats her. The awful disintegration of the couple's relationship, with the murder of Duncan as the watershed, is signalled with all the subtlety of a "before and after" advertisement. First seen with her ample bosom barely contained, Dexter appears, post- coronation, buttoned up to the nostrils. And when her husband loosens his jerkin and she makes a would-be sexual overture to him, his dismissiveness causes her to disguise the gesture as an attempt to brush away a stray hair. Yes, it's that telegraphic.

In a recent interview, Sewell quipped that "most Shakespearean productions do fail, most of the time ... At least with Macbeth, they have an excuse". With its risibly uncreepy Irish witches and its glassed-in apparitions that look like exhibits from the V&A costume department, this production needs all the excuses it can get.