Productions of Macbeth come with all manner of things up their kilts - if putting it like that doesn't distort the point that this is the Shakespeare tragedy that seems to translate most readily to different cultures. In recent years, we've been treated over here to everything from a Peking Opera Macbeth, in which the hero tumbled deathwards via a series of spectacular backward somersaults, to a samurai version which positioned the tragedy under a forlornly beautiful shower of cherry blossom petals, the Japanese symbol of both the defectiveness of appearances and human futility.
East European directors, understandably refusing to have much patience with the sensitive side of evil dictators, have tended to embrace iconoclasm. The National Theatrre of Craiova infiltrated scenes from Macbeth into Ubu Roi, as though there were no qualitative difference between Shakespeare's hero and Jarry's oafish Humpty Dumpty who enjoys tyranny for its own sake and who rampages around like a spoilt, cowardly child.
Indeed, a recent Schiller Theater staging was so intent on sticking two fingers up at leaders of all description it has even turned the saintly Duncan into a randy, senile old man who was seen making suggestive overtures to Lady Macbeth and who amused himself by impaling lumps of cheese on the spikes of his crown. Bumping him off might have seemed like an admirable public service if the protagonist himself hadn't been so cartoonily loathsome, regressing as the play wore on into a bloated, brainless-looking facsimile of Jarry's definitive bad egg.
What all such versions miss is the crucial ambivalence in this tragedy. In Macbeth, Shakespeare presents us with a brutal villain who also has a searching poetic imagination, a man who turns into a monster but with a clear-sighted awareness of the nature of his offence. There is no self-sparing evasiveness in his anguished introspection. The last time Adrian Noble directed the tragedy for the RSC in 1986, this dimension was firmly downplayed, Jonathan Pryce presenting Macbeth as a little man, morally dependent on the strength of his wife who intoned the soliloquies in an manner largely unresponsive to the imaginative mystery of the questions they broached.
That Noble's current production (just opened at the Barbican, London) was going to lay a rather different accent on the play was apparent before it began. First, prominently quoted in the programme is Malcolm's comment 'Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell' which suggests that Noble is going to take the line that Macbeth starts off not as already worm-eaten with ambition, as Ian McKellan memorably played him, but as the best of men. Second, and more importantly, the casting of Derek Jacobi in the title role is a fairly heavy hint that this will be a version that focuses on Macbeth's sensitivity. Certainly, Jacobi, whose Richard III conveyed well the intellectual prankster but not the erotic psychopath, is an actor better equipped to trace the pained metaphysical musings of Macbeth than to transmit an unsettling sense of his monstrousness.
At the start, indeed, he is almost too good to be true. An ambitious thought seems never to have tiptoed across the mind of the bluff, convivial warrior who parks himself on the ground as though he'd just emerged not from a battle but from a rather satisfying game of squash. He responds to the black-veiled witches, who descend on the mobile gantry in Ian MacNeil's set, with genuine perplexity, unlike Alan Howard in the recent National Theatre production, whose reaction mingled fear and haunted recognition, as though the weird sisters and their prophecies were a terrifying projection of his own deepest desires. The trouble with the approach taken here is that it conflicts with Lady Macbeth's later implication that aspiring thoughts are not new to him. It also makes Jacobi's instant switch after the prophecies to conspicuous hypocrisy seem comically blatant.
The play charts the hero's inexorable isolation, but it's not when he's alone that Jacobi has his greatest impact. He makes such an operatic meal of the soliloquies that instead of coming across as searingly honest and unsparing, they sound like a case of someone trying to derive consolation from tuning in to the beauteous flexibilities of his own voice. It's in the changing relationship with Cheryl Campbell's creepily aroused, volatile Lady Macbeth that he emerges more powerfully.
At the start, as though goading him to prove himself a man first by murder, she teasingly fends off his attempts to kiss her, this coquetry unsettlingly crossed with the manner of a firm mother dealing with an over-dependent child. After Duncan's killing, there's a wonderful moment where you can see the seeds of their future estrangement in the awkwardness of the embrace they try to give one another, their intimacy badly hampered by the fact that both of them have bloody hands. Then this Macbeth begins very pointedly to exclude his wife from his deliberations. Watching them seated at either end of the vast dining table after the banquet scene, Lady Macbeth stiffening as she hears of the spy-network he has created, you get a desolate sense of the divergent paths they will now take. The hero progresses to brutalising doggedness (which Jacobi only half captures); his wife to madness (rendered less than harrowing here because Cheryl Campbell seems to undergo a regression to childhood - not the most piercing form of mental hell).
The production does not underestimate the enormity, in religious terms, of Macbeth's crime. Duncan is made to look like an elderly Christ and sits in the middle of a table that is meant to remind you of the Last Supper; the witches concoct their foul brew as a blasphemous communion. But, partly because of Jacobi's performance, the force of evil is not communicated very troublingly. For example, in the mayhem at the Macduff's, one of the villains brains a baby by bashing it against the table. Clearly designed to show how Lady Macbeth's perverted imaginings have now become grotesque fact in her husband's Scotland, the moment falls flat because the 'baby' drops to the floor with a doll-like clunk. Curiously, the production's most insidious blast of evil comes in, of all places, the drunken porter scene, when this comic figure suddenly stops and stares up the steps to the murder chamber, as though momentarily immobilised by some ugly intimation of hell.
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