Macbeth, has touched the lives of innumerable people the world over. Whether it be the school child reading in the classroom, the actor performing on stage, the academic toiling for new and hidden meaning or the audience member seated in the darkened aisles, mention the name Macbeth, and the bloody Scottish Tragedy soon unfolds in the mind's eye.
It is perhaps the play's notoriety that has become its stumbling block in recent times. There are so many preconceived notions about how the play should be performed that it is hard for an individual production to stand on its own merits. Likewise, the actors themselves are forever held in comparison with those who managed to produce memorable interpretations of the play's major roles in the past.
For this reason the play has achieved the the somewhat dubious honour of becoming one of Shakespeare's problem plays, with its protagonist being one of the theatre's great unplayable characters. Rufus Sewell's approach to the role seems to bear all this in mind. He stormed on to confront the witches from the outset in a show of tantrum equal to that of a spoilt child. There is no doubting that Sewell grasps the role of the cold, merciless warrior with great skill. His power is tangible, and his mastery of the sword is apparent in his final moments with MacDuff. However, in what seems to be an attempt to display the tragic warrior's mental deterioration as the play progresses a great deal is lost. There is very little contrast in his emotions. So much so that even at the death of his wife, in the famous ''...out, out brief candle..." he borders on adolescent ranting.
In stark contrast, Sally Dexter brought to her Lady Macbeth a sense of down-to-earth scheming for power that was as engaging for the observer as it was disarming for Macbeth. Dexter was in control of her character throughout. Her strong yet simple performance highlighted all the more Macbeth's insistence on irrational outburts and misplaced anger.
The remaining cast did little more than flesh out the story line. Among their number, however, Declan Conlan managed to produce a MacDuff who developed and grew stronger as the play progressed. Nowhere more so was this evident than when he recived the news of Lady Macduff's death. From a downstage position and watched by the increasingly powerful Malcolm, the awful realisation of the slaughter of his "pretty ones" visibly drained him. This plain and heartfelt show of emotion undercut even the death of Lady Macbeth.
Director John Crowley did little to venture beyond the borders of the straight-forward translation. A minimal and highly versatile set design from Jeremy Herbert, coupled with contemporary flavoured traditional Scots costumes by Laura Hopkins, helped towards progessing the play's action and alleviating the many static moments.
There were moments of innovation; for example, the recently butchered Banquo being consumed centre stage by the banqueting table as it descended illustrated the sparse staging at its most effective. Likewise, Banquo's ghostly image being reflected ad infinitum as a projection of Macbeth's vision at the hands of the marginally sinister witches, also went some way towards visualising the protagonist's seeming mental anguish.
Ultimately, there is definitely a strong potential in the production and it will be interesting to see how it develops and matures as time goes on
By William Shakespeare
Directed by John Crowley
With: Rufus Sewell, Sally Dexter,Martin Marquez, Simon Chandler, Declan Conlan, Robin McCaffrey, Diane O'Kelly, Polly Pritchett, Billy Carter, Robert Patterson, Simon Meacock, Simon Coleman, Daniel Hart, William Key, Oscar Pearce, Milo Twomey, Peter Baylis, John Gill, Charles Wyn Davies, Aaron Johnson, Suzannah Titley
Set Design: Jeremy Herbert
Lighting Design: Rick Fisher
Costume Design: Laura Hopkins
Sound Design: John Owens and Fergus O'Hare
The Queen's Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1, Tel. 0171 494 5120
Performances from 2/24/99 for an open run
Reviewed by James Walters based on 3/04/99 performance