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Macbeth

William Shakespeare
Royal Shakespeare Company Newcastle Season
Theatre Royal, Newcastle
(2004)

I pondered, on my way to the Theatre Royal, that I have never seen a really good Macbeth. I didn't see McKellen or Sher, so I missed out there, but while I have seen good, even excellent Lears, Hamlets, Othellos, Romeo and Juliets et al., I feel tempted to say, along with Kenneth Tynan, "Nobody has ever succeeded as Macbeth."

Coming away from Dominic Cooke's version, which stars Greg Hicks, I pondered, again, that I have never seen a good Macbeth.

Cooke has turned a great tragedy into a melodrama and seemed to be trying to propel Hicks towards what was almost an actor-managery performance, with a gravitas, even portentousness about the great soliloquies which was at odds with the much more naturally rendered "Macbeth hath murdered sleep" speech. I was, in fact, quite put off, by the slow delivery and frequent, and often, unnatural pauses which, seemed to, pepper, Hick's, speaking in, the first part, of the, play. Whether this was due to Cooke's direction or Lyn Darnley's voice work I obviously don't know but it really did lessen the performance of someone who is potentially a great Macbeth.

As Macbeth sees the dagger before him, he is standing on the grill from which the witches emerge and light streams upwards from it. Look, audience, he is being influenced by hell! And as he sits awaiting the arrival of the enemy army he is bathed in red light. Look, audience, he is covered in blood - and red is a sign of danger too! Conversely, Burnham Wood coming to Dunsinane is represented by the back wall of the set moving slowly downstage with Malcolm, on top, lit in a bright spotlight. Look, audience, how like an avenging angel he is!

And there were numerous things which just seemed wrong. The kindly Duncan (Richard Cordery), after listening to the "bloody man" telling the story of Macbeth and Banquo's fight against the rebels, orders his followers, his voice full of concern, to "get him surgeons", after which the poor guy is left lying there until the end of the scene, ignored by all.

Why use echo on the Witches' speeches? It added an other-worldliness, perhaps, but in forcing the actors to avoid heavy stress and us to concentrate on making out the words rather than having them impact upon us, we lost the sense of evil. The "Her husband's to Aleppo gone" piece sounded about as evil as telling us she's popping down to M&S to buy some new underwear.

And did the exiled Malcolm have to look like a dissolute no-good? He has to pretend to be one, of course, but would the saintly King of England really have given so many troops to this wastrel?

I loved Forbes Masson's porter, but he seemed to be in a different play from the rest!

There were, of course, good things. The banquet scene with Banquo's ghost was superb and the witches' (who were otherwise somewhat ordinary) vanishing into air was well done. I also liked the apparitions being projected onto the smoke: much more convincing than the usual procession across the stage or popping out of a trapdoor. With the reservations already expressed about the somewhat broken nature of Hicks' (and, to an extent Louis Hilyer's as Banquo) speech, at least initially, the verse speaking was a model of clarity

It's a somewhat melodramatic although perfectly clear telling of the story which has lost the play's tragic depths.

Steve Orme reviewed this production at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford, and Philip Fisher reviewed the Albery performance

Reviewer: Peter Lathan