Macbeth, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Michael Coveney
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:59

"Doubtful it stood..." are the first words spoken, three times over, by Scott Handy playing Ross, a character purloined by director Michael Boyd as his prompt, narrator and voice of conscience in this bloody tale of insurrection, religious fanaticism, child murder and revenge.

It's a bold and declamatory start to the RSC's 50th-anniversary season in the new theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, not least because Boyd is re-defining this great tragedy as a political and sectarian masterpiece as much as a human catastrophe.

Boyd is harking back to an earlier production of his own many years ago at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow, a converted kirk with a charged spiritual atmosphere, and designer Tom Piper thoroughly subverts my suspicion that the new "democratic" thrust stage would put an end to scenic design: he's virtually desecrated the the site of the Bard's baptism and burial, Holy Trinity Church, down the road, providing smashed stained glass windows, a pile of rubble and a canopy of lights.

There is nothing stale about these evocations, or indeed the clarity with which Boyd reasserts the Protestant monarchy of King James of Scotland. The frescoes, as well as the windows, have been vandalised. And instead of the superstitious wrangling of the midnight hags, we have three "weird" children, ominously reclaiming their right to life.

This controversial innovation underlines the Macbeths' barren marriage and highlights the atrocity at Macduff's castle, where a young family is slaughtered. There is also little Fleance, who escapes the murderers who hack down his father, Banquo (Steve Toussaint).

Banquo's massive blood-boltered ghost barges down the door at the banquet and slits Macbeth's throat; that scene is replayed without the "murder" after the interval. Jamie Beamish's Porter is a nightmare character, a Guy Fawkes rebel with a batch of fireworks packed in the lining of his red leather coat.

This air of political volatility is the ideal setting for Jonathan Slinger's Macbeth. He's not some brooding, tortured poet of the night, but a jumpy, nervy lunatic who is easily stirred to atrocity but, equally, easily controlled by Aislí* McGuckin's voluptuous Lady Macbeth; until, that is, he slips the leash completely. Slinger's Macbeth really does think too much, and that's his downfall. He can't function properly on his own.

The murder of Duncan "in our house" establishes the intimacy of the new theatre, with a thousand spectators piled high on three sides of the thrust stage, but also allows for the gestural effect of the group scenes and a line of Banquo seedlings, stretching to the crack of dawn in a row of black puppets that flies in from the top of the building.

Even the dreaded "England" scene acquires added urgency in the playing of Howard Charles's dedicated Malcolm in a long white cassock, and Aidan Kelly's splenetic, vengeful Macduff. It all makes for an exciting and decisive start to the new season.

In rep to 6 October (0844 800 1110)

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