Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford
Michael Boyd's first season as artistic director of the RSC may not be make or break for the Company - it's more likely to grace or deface its reputation.
It's time to forget about the politics and controversy of the RSC's long-term, multi-million pound vision and concentrate on its on-stage performance.
Boyd has made his mark by putting together a core ensemble who will be performing both Shakespeare and contemporary work almost until the end of the year. They get twice the usual amount of rehearsal time, the idea being to allow directors and actors to take risks which lead to the best possible performances.
The first in the Tragedies season is Macbeth, directed by recently appointed RSC associate director Dominic Cooke. It boasts such experienced actors as Greg Hicks, Richard Cordery and Sian Thomas who would probably have turned in creditable performances no matter how short the rehearsal time. The rest of the cast are fairly solid, so it would seem initially that Boyd's foresight is paying off.
As for experimentation, Cooke has decided against taking the play apart and rebuilding it in a form that's hardly recognisable. Instead he allows the actors to speak the speech trippingly on the tongue and comes up with the occasional different interpretation.
The tragedy, one of Shakespeare's shortest, is performed without an interval which keeps the tension high throughout. Robert Innes Hopkins' set features a huge, moveable wall which with clever lighting by Peter Mumford changes into Birnam wood advancing on Dunsinane. And the three witches usually make their entrances from beneath the stage, rather like rats coming out of a sewer.
But there's no need for gimmicks when you have class actors in your company. There are few better than Hicks who won the Critics' Circle award last year for best Shakespearian performance for the title role in Coriolanus.
He speaks each word clearly and crisply, and gains bravado every time he eliminates someone who's a threat to him. Hicks is particularly dazzling in the scene in which he sees Banquo's ghost, eventually sending crockery crashing from the banquet table as he teeters on the verge of insanity.
The only thing that prevents him going down in history as one of our finest Macbeths is his relationship with his wife. It's hardly conceivable that she has sufficient power over him to persuade him to kill Duncan when Macbeth wants nothing to do with her plot.
Similarly Thomas is for the most part excellent as Lady Macbeth, uttering some of her reassuring lines to her husband in a thoughtful, considered manner as though reciting the words for the first time. However, she doesn't appear to have the reckless, one-dimensional ambition to be able to force Macbeth to make the witches' prophesy come true.
As for the rest of the cast, Cordery is a stately, compassionate Duncan; Louis Hilyer a feisty Banquo; Pal Aron (Brandon Kane in The Bill) a sound, humane Malcolm; Clive Wood a forceful, grief-stricken Macduff; and Forbes Masson a delightfully expressive Porter.
It's a commendable, blood-spattered offering from Cooke which is a good start to a season which needs to re-establish Stratford as the place to see the Bard's work at its best. One down, three to go.
"Macbeth" runs until October 2nd
Thomas as Lady Macbeth
Photo by Manuel Harlan