THEATRE / Macbeth, RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon

Macbeth shall sleep no more. But, for the audience, the difficulty lies in keeping their eyes open during Tim Albery's sedentary new production.

Paul Taylor
Friday 17 May 1996 23:02

Macbeth is a hero who famously murders sleep: here is a production of Macbeth that positively induces it. To be fair, there are a few moments in Tim Albery's new RSC staging that cause you to stir from the general torpor.

In Macbeth's second scene with the witches, for example, there's a genuine creepiness in the idea of presenting Banquo's future line of succession as midget facsimiles of their military forebear that pop up all over the stage: biological reproduction paraded with a nightmarish, sick-joke literalness before the childless Macbeth. There's an interesting, if controversial, twist given to the ending, too. Instead of dying with the savage, last- ditch courage of the cornered animal, this hero appears to acquiesce in the justice of his defeat. In the climactic fight against Macduff, Macbeth's hand gets gashed and the spectacle of his bleeding fingers stops him in his tracks, recalling all too plainly the stain of his primary crime against Duncan. He then almost walks into the knife that finishes him off.

For the most part, though, this is a deeply unexciting evening. Roger Allam's Macbeth has all the animal magnetism of Geoffrey Howe, within whose expressive range a fair number of the notes he strikes would comfortably fall. When he comes back from murdering Duncan, you'd think from his manner that he'd just been unblocking the sink - if it weren't for the gory knife in his clasp. Allam speaks the verse intelligently and improves in the later scenes when projecting a man drained of feeling and dryly contemptuous of existence. But of the preceding psychological turmoil, he gives a colourless account.

It doesn't help that he must be the most sedentary Macbeth on record. Even during the "Is this a dagger which I see before me?" soliloquy, he's seated on the long bench downstage - not the most kinetic of postures in which to greet the apparition. But then Stewart Laing's whole design cramps the life of the piece. If there's a problem at the moment in producing mainstage Shakespeare, then that problem is evaded rather than solved by Laing's method, which is to divide the stage into a range of tighter acting spaces. There's a ramp at the front and, at the back, a bleak semi- abstract room with no windows and four doors divided by a row of battlements. Over these leaps Brid Brennan's Lady Macbeth, striking matches rather than carrying a candle, in a stubbornly unmoving account of the sleepwalking scene.

The set manages to be confining for the actors without generating the kind of oppressive atmosphere that might be suitable for the play. Evil never becomes a potent presence. What is shocking here about the scene where Lady Macduff's little son is butchered is not the moral content but the perfunctoriness of its staging, for all that the director has Macbeth slip in at the end to check they have got the right boy. The witches are got up like peculiarly grim and bearded Victorian governesses and are signally ineffective. The dullness of the evening makes you think back with an almost aching nostalgia to Mark Rylance's Hare Krishna sect take on the play.

In rep to 5 Oct. Booking: 01789 295623

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