The team of actor Simon Russell Beale and director John Caird has already had a double success at the National Theatre with Hamlet and what might be regarded as its illegitimate child, Humble Boy. The Almeida's artistic director, Michael Attenborough must be very proud that he has managed to commission the pair to get back together, this time with Macbeth.
Strangely, as the Hamlet was one of several in 2000, this is the second of three Macbeths that are likely to be playing simultaneously in London next month, once the RSC with Greg Hicks in the title role, arrive. Caird's could hardly be more different from Max Stafford Clark's themed version, now at Wilton's Music Hall, in which the Scottish king becomes an Idi Amin character.
Simon Russell Beale is regarded by many good judges as the greatest actor of his generation and a fair number would possibly put him forward as the best currently appearing on stage or screen. His performance as Macbeth is almost a masterclass and he is well suited to a part that, in just over two and three quarter hours, takes his character through the whole gamut of emotions.
The atmospheric opening featuring three pale-faced, dark-eyed weird sisters soon leads Macbeth into his vaulting ambition to become King. The moment when bluff King Duncan (William Gaunt) announces his appointment as Thane of Cawdor is one of revelation. You can almost see the thoughts of future glory as they run through Macbeth's brain.
At this point though, he is still desperately uncertain and it is his hard-nosed, scheming wife, well played by Emma Fielding, who browbeats him into initiating a tragic course of events that lead through multiple murders to madness.
Russell Beale may not be everybody's idea of a matinee idol, particularly when put next to Silas Carson's tall, muscular but very boyish Banquo, but his acting is phenomenal. Like Miss Fielding, he speaks his lines immaculately, if sometimes with painfully Pinteresque slowness. He is also able to convey emotions in a way that few others can match. Whether it is joy, sadness, anger or tears he is always entirely convincing.
Ultimately, he struggles to believe that his end can be nigh and the shock hits hard when, first, Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane and then, hard on its heels, Paul Higgins' Macduff explains his birth and knifes the protagonist. In doing so swiftly, he thereby allows Simon Russell Beale to avoid a single weakness, his swordplay.
The production uses the space in the Almeida well. The acting space forms a circle and within this there is a smaller circle apparently representing the globe. To keep the audience involved, many of the entrances and exits take place through them. Designer Christopher Oram creates interesting effects with dry ice and Neil Austin's often dim lighting and has stuck with the traditional costumes.
John Leonard's sound is, at its best, a major contributor to the atmosphere but at its worst can be irritatingly intrusive, like the soundtrack to a romantic movie.
This Macbeth is well worth seeing and many would travel a long way and pay much money to see its star in action. With a greater degree of urgency, it could though, have been even better.
This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version
Reviewer: Philip Fisher