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Theatre review: Macbeth 
5th-Oct-2007 08:24 pm
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I studied Macbeth for my O'Level English and this is the fourth production of the play I've seen on stage. I went with vanessaw, who hadn't quite managed to finish reading the Charles & Mary Lamb adaptation for kids. So it's fair to say between us we can give a balanced view of the production starring Patrick Stewart and KateFleetwoodWhoIWasInAPlayWithOnceInCaseIHadn'tMentionedIt at the Gielgud.

For the Equus people, especially those who've only ever been to London while that was playing, this is what the Gielgud looks like when it's not covered in scaffolding and topless horseyboys:

Macbeth is such a popular play that a lot of people don't seem to realise how difficult it is to pull off. The note of hysteria can often lapse into unintentional comedy, and to date Macbeth is the only role I've seen Simon Russell Beale get bad reviews for. Rupert Goold's production deals with this by using a lot of imagery from Japanese horror films - in the scenes with the witches, lightning is replaced by screeching static projected onto the walls, which is unnerving, while the video montage representing the vision of Banquo's heirs as kings is a clear homage to The Ring. All this works, as does the choice of a basement kitchen for the set, with Anthony Ward's design featuring a huge industrial lift at the back, clanking ominously as ghosts and soldiers arrive.

Patrick Stewart is much older than most actors who play Macbeth, and this may be one reason why, in the early stages at least, he comes across as more sympathetic than the character usually seems. Perhaps it's the fact that Paul Shelley's Duncan is also an intimidating dictator figure that makes you less horrified that he's going to be dispensed with. But as the play goes on and Macbeth grows into his power as king, his cruelty also grows, and before his unravelling at the banquet scene he abuses it to keep his subjects in a constant state of fear. This is a Stalinist dictator who could snap at any time.

KateFleetwoodWhoIWasInAPlayWithOnceInCaseIHadn'tMentionedIt is the much younger Lady Macbeth, nicely dealing with the shift in the balance of power in the marriage once the murder has been committed. I often have problems with the character of Macduff, as he often blends into the many thanes and lords for most of the play, only to have to shine at the last minute. Luckily here Michael Feast makes a credible nemesis, with the only really duff (heh!) scene being his meeting with Malcolm in England, which is all over the place. Feast is helped by an inspired choice by Goold, of replacing Lennox in the scene of the murder's discovery by Macduff's wife and children, so that when they are murdered the audience has built up a relationship with them, and associates them with Macduff.

Another inspired decision is the realisation that topical jokes don't really work after 400 years, so the porter scene isn't played for laughs. Instead Christopher Patrick Nolan plays him as an almost Gollum-like figure, the kind of drunk who could turn violent at any moment, and it makes for a genuinely disqueting scene. The witches meanwhile are disguised as nurses, sucking the bloody sergeant's life out of him as they pretend to try and save him. Some of their cauldron spell is actually rapped, believe it or not, and it's a sign of how well the production keeps its ominous tone that this isn't farcical.

Clarity of the language isn't perhaps a priority here, and Vanessa admitted she understood less of it than she'd expected to. Knowing many of the speeches quite well, I was often surprised by how Stewart in particular chose to break up his sentences, with pauses in places that, for me, didn't help get across the meaning of the words. But the storytelling obviously transcends this as Vanessa had no trouble following the action, and with a large party of fairly young teenagers in the audience you barely heard a peep. Overall this is a production that does justice to a difficult play, throws in a few surprises, and is a fresh view that's well worth experiencing.

Macbeth by William Shakespeare is booking until the 1st of December at the Gielgud Theatre.
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