Headlong into exciting hell

There is a feeling that all is going to be well with this production from the outset, in which we first glimpse the flickering fire of the witches through a gauze and then, when it falls dramatically, Macbeth himself standing in the middle of a suddenly blazing ring of flame. Hit them with a dramativ opening is obviously Richard Eyre's recipe and it is continued with other aspects of Bob Crowley's designs, with a forest glowering in the background and huge interior and exterior walls of the castle rolling into position, creating enclosed spaces for the horror and violence of the play. The achievement is to bring both intimacy and spectacle on the Olivier's stage, a sharp focus to the domestic scenes, the impression that there will soon be avenging forces gathering on the outside, a feeling reinforced by Jean Kalman's intensely dramatic lighting.

Alan Howard is a mature Macbeth, a Scottish chief who speaks with the authority which comes from years of rule and service to his kind, but seemingly thrown off-balance by the demands and influence of his much younger wife.

Anastasia Hille, blonde, youthful and very sexy, brings an unusual dimension to the role, the voice light and girlish, the ambition like steel but recently assumed, which brings a rather different flavour to her mental collapse in the sleepwalking scene, a greater realisation of the enormity of her sin than might be the case with an older woman.

Howard, too, acts like a man possessed, stimulated by his newly-discovered desires, fearful of discovery but maliciously proud in his ultimate defiance, the conscience overcome by the thrill of standing with his back to the wall.

What is most impressive, however, is that Richard Eyre tackles the play at such an exciting pace during its two and a quarter hours without an interval, treating it as a headlong descent into hell. Duncan - a sonorously spoken Robin Bailey - is despatched without a second thought. As his ambition grows and the forces mount against him, so does Macbeth's madness increase. It may not provide for a great deal of characterisation in the other roles - Clive Wood's Banquo is a somewhat nondescript figure, as is James Laurenson's slightly sensitive and almost effete Macduff - but the method works triumphantly. It even overcomes the rather wayward costuming - the sombre black battle clothing of no particular period giving way to Victorian officers mess gear in some scenes and to Edwardian summer suits for the English scene in which Malcolm (Simon Coates) and Macduff plan their return to Scotland and the overthrow of the tyrant.

Peter Hepple

The Stage and Television Today, 15.4.93


Playing Shakespeare/Macbeth