Macbeth - Reviews - Queen of Thorns

Last Update: 01 Mar 2003

I've had a bit of a crush on Sean Bean for a long time now, and ever since I found out that he would be starring in "Macbeth" in the West End this winter, I desperately wanted to go to London so I could see him in person. I'd pretty much resigned myself to being disappointed in this ambition when a perfectly timed business trip pretty much fell into my lap. So a few weeks ago, I treated myself to not one, but two performances, at the Albery Theatre in London (and I decided to get the good seats too because it's only money and when would I ever have the chance to do this again?) I must say, it's a good thing that I went twice, because the first time, I managed to have a total of two coherent thoughts during the performance. They were: "Damn! I'm sitting ten feet away from Sean Bean" and "Wow! Are those beads of sweat rolling down his chest? Weird Sisters, could you please move out of the way now?" OK, I guess that's three (semi-)coherent thoughts … but anyway …

When I told my husband that I'd been to see the play, he asked if Sean Bean was as handsome in person (and how much do I love my husband for being so understanding of my quirks?) - and the answer, of course, is a hearty and resounding YES! Yes, extremely handsome, graceful, in amazingly good shape, which the costume-designer totally capitalized on by putting him in a fetching little see-through mesh number and then later dispensing with shirts altogether. Very yummy indeed, and did I mention that I was close enough to see both the Blades tattoo and the LOTR tattoo? Because I was indeed and I was also close enough to get an eyeful of the aforementioned rivulets of sweat and the nice view of muscles in the back rippling as Macbeth is devastated to learn that Banquo's children will rule Scotland and so on … And then there's the voice, which was a tad hoarse the first time I heard it (probably because he'd already done a matinee) but by Saturday when I saw the play again, was back to its lovely, velvety-sandpaper tones. And let me not forget the smile, which is even more dazzling in real life and a thing of beauty and a joy forever. My only teensy disappointment was that, while I got to meet and chat with the lovely and talented Samantha Bond afterwards, Sean disappointed a crowd of us waiting at the stage door by slipping out the front. So no autograph for me! Although, I suppose it's just as well, as I would have no doubt made a complete ass of myself and wouldn't have been able to say much beyond "guhhhhh."

But as I said, I'm glad that I went to see the play twice, because the second time, I managed to control the lust enough to pay attention to the play - and the play was quite the thing. I adored this production above and beyond the sheer hotness of its star and while I've certainly been known to drop scads of money on nonsense, it made me feel better that the play was actually good as well.

This production quite literally opens with a bang - there's no warning, just this enormous explosion and then, behind a transparent curtain, we see the three witches conjure fire from the ground as they discuss their future plans (and by the way, these sisters are not so much Weird as Sexxxxay what with their shiny red hair and slinky gowns). They start to sing what I thought were Gaelic (but which apparently are Old English) words set to a haunting little tune that becomes something of a leitmotif through the play and through the smoke of the fire, we see Macbeth walk out and the witches put his armor (which is some kind of leather trench coat with no sleeves) on him. Then the curtain goes up and we're in the midst of a furious and confusing battle, which is mostly fought with swords, even though the participants are wearing modern guerilla chic (Macbeth in that mesh shirt with leather trousers and combat boots … Mmmm, leather trousers … Sorry, where was I?) It's nearly impossible to tell who's who, which are the "good guys" and which are the "bad." Eventually, we see Macbeth impale a man on his sword and climb up to fix his victim's bloody head to a spike on the battlements (the stage is quite simple with a set of stairs up the side and a little balcony that ends up playing a fairly crucial role.) It turns out that the man Macbeth killed is Macdonald (or Macdonwald, as my edition has it), the leader of the rebel armies, and his death has more or less ended the battle.

At this point, King Duncan (played by the superb Julian Glover) and his two sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, make an appearance. It's clear from their immaculate clothes (Duncan has a sort of Mussolini-esque beige wool trench coat affair, and Malcolm and Donalbain are dressed in black outfits that are, I think, deliberately reminiscent either of the Fascist Blackshirts or perhaps even of the SS) that they've played no part in the battle at all. They discuss the course of the battle, Duncan is told of Macbeth's feats of arms, decides to give him the honors and lands of the treacherous Thane of Cawdor, and sends Ross to find Macbeth and tell him the good news.

Meanwhile, Macbeth and Banquo have met again after the battle - they embrace briefly in a moment that reminded me of Sharpe and Harper - they've got that same kind of comrades-in-arms/buddies/bluff soldiers thing going on, and then Banquo points out the gnarled figures moving amongst the dead on the battlefield. Why, yes, it is our friends, the Not-So-Weird Sisters - disguised as crones under a lot of sacking and whatnot. They greet Macbeth as Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor and king hereafter. Banquo, not to be outdone, brashly asks about his own future, and the witches tell him that he will be "lesser than Macbeth and greater", for though he will not be king himself, his children and their children will be kings. Macbeth, already deeply troubled, asks the sisters to explain their prophecies, but they vanish without another word, and so he and Banquo simply confirm that they both heard the witches' odd words. At this point, Ross and another nobleman enter to inform Macbeth that the King waits for him and greet him as Thane of Cawdor, which startles him no end. Already the witches' predictions are coming true and Macbeth turns to Banquo and asks if he does not hope that his children will be kings, to which Banquo responds, very wisely that "oftentimes, to win us to our harm, the instruments of darkness tell us truths … to betray's in deepest consequence …" But Macbeth isn't listening - he turns away from Banquo, wondering again at the prophetic greeting of the witches and already somewhat taken by the idea of being king, even though he knows that it will take a murder that is "yet … but fantastical" to put him on the throne.

Now Macbeth arrives at Duncan's camp (and the contrast between the sweaty, bleeding Macbeth and Banquo and the elegant camel-hair coat of the King and the not-a-hair-out-of-gelled-place coiffures of Malcolm and Donalbain again reminded me of all those Sharpe episodes where Sharpe sticks out so amongst the staff-officers in scarlet and gold). Duncan honors him again, praising Macbeth's military prowess, and Macbeth responds gracefully to his King. It's clear here that Macbeth really likes and respects Duncan and that he means his words about "the service and the loyalty I owe, in doing it pays itself." But his intentions are almost immediately undermined as Duncan elevates his own son Malcolm to be the Prince of Cumberland. The expression on Macbeth's face here, as though he's just bitten something sour, makes it clear that whatever liking and duty he feels toward Duncan is something he doesn't feel for Duncan's sons. Duncan announces his intention of spending the next night at Macbeth's castle of Inverness, and Macbeth leaves to warn his wife of the King's arrival.

The next scene, set in Macbeth's castle, features a rather large bed in the middle of the stage - Lady Macbeth (the superb Samantha Bond) enters, barefoot and in a satiny gown that looks a lot like those of the witches, perches herself on the edge of the bed, and begins to read her husband's letter, in which he tells her of his encounter with the witches and his new title. She is determined that he will be king as well, though she laments the fact that he is too full of "the milk of human kindness" to do what must be done. Macbeth, she says, wants to be king, but he does not want it enough to commit murder and she realizes that she's going to have to talk him into this.

Almost immediately, Macbeth arrives, and sweeps Lady Macbeth up in a passionate kiss. It's clear that these two are madly in love and they can't keep their hands off of each other, though Macbeth apparently just wants to get laid and Lady Macbeth keeps wanting to talk about that letter and those prophecies and how the impending arrival of Duncan is perfect for their plan. They roll around on the bed, kissing, until Lady Macbeth ends up straddling Macbeth (lucky, LUCKY Samantha Bond … ahem!) and makes the forceful point that Duncan won't be leaving. Macbeth is still not entirely convinced - "we'll speak no further," he says, and they start snogging again as the lights go dim.

Duncan, Banquo and the others arrive shortly thereafter, Duncan remarking that Macbeth's castle "hath a pleasant seat" - oh, how VERY wrong he is, poor man! Lady Macbeth sweeps down in a gorgeous blue velvet gown buttoned up to her chin and there's all kinds of Shakesperean small talk the gist of which is that Duncan is very taken with Lady M and she manages to conceal her designs on his life quite effectively.

The next scene takes place as the King and the court banquet offstage. Macbeth (no longer in the mesh shirt - sigh! - but in a kind of black leather tuxedo complete with a medal on a red ribbon around his neck, which is very severe and, um, quite sexy …) comes out from the feast, to argue with himself against Duncan's murder. Duncan is his kinsman and his guest, both powerful arguments against killing him. And then there's the fact that Duncan is a good man, well loved and admired, and that he himself cares for Duncan. Macbeth has almost talked himself out of the bloody deed when Lady Macbeth appears and demands to know why he's left the feast. He tells her that the deal is off, that he doesn't want his good name ruined. She's furious, accuses him of being less than man and wants to know why he told her about the prophecies in the first place if he doesn't intend to do anything about them. She's got a foolproof plan if only Macbeth will stop equivocating, and with words and caresses, she convinces him and they go back to the party with murder in their hearts and smiles on their faces. It's a fabulous scene, and of course, I wanted to scream, "Noooooo! Don't do it - it won't turn out the way you think" because Sean Bean does a great job here of showing that Macbeth is not an evil man, who murders without compunction - this man cares deeply about what he is about to do, and the horror and tragedy is that his ambition and his passion for his wife drive him to do something that he knows to be abhorrent.

The next features a bed again - this time a little one, where Banquo's son, Fleance, screams in his sleep from a nightmare. Banquo himself cannot sleep - he is too troubled by the words of the witches - and he starts at Macbeth's approach. (They're both in sort of tuxedo undress at this point - no more jackets, just the white shirts with cummerbunds, which, by the way, is a really nice look!) Macbeth is jovial, ruffling Fleance's hair, and when Banquo asks if he too has thought about the witches and the way their prophecy about Cawdor came true, Macbeth pretends nonchalance. "I think not of them," he says, but then immediately tells Banquo that, at his leisure, he would like to discuss "that business." (It's a puzzling scene, for me, at any rate - I suppose it's there to show the contrast between Banquo, who is certainly unsettled by the witches' prophecy, but has no desire to act and make it come true, and Macbeth, who has thought of little else besides murder since he first heard the witches' words.) Banquo and Fleance leave, and then Macbeth has the second of his great soliloquies as he tries to grab a dagger that exists only in his imagination. He sees it dripping in blood - perhaps it is his conscience come to show him what he is about to do? It's beautifully played - I almost saw that dagger myself and held my breath as Macbeth prayed for silence as the "very stones prate of my whereabouts…" He's still so uncomfortable, so horrified at what he is about to do that his imagination has conjured up a phantom dagger, and yet, when he hears the bell ring, he follows its summons unhesitatingly.

The next scene opens with Lady Macbeth, back in her nightgown, pacing anxiously as she explains that she's drugged Duncan's grooms so they won't wake as Macbeth murders their master with their own daggers (all the better to frame them for the crime afterwards.) We see the first cracks in Lady M already - she tries to convince herself (and us) that she would have killed Duncan herself "had he not resembled my father as he slept." At this point, Macbeth stumbles in, carrying the grooms' gory daggers - we never see Duncan's body, but Macbeth is so drenched in blood that one has to imagine that he's hacked away at the corpse - and he is clearly in shock at what he's done. Lady Macbeth asks him about the murder and all he can think about is the fact that the grooms said a prayer and he couldn't articulate the word "amen" - he obviously believes he's damned himself by his crime. "Macbeth shall sleep no more," he says, prophetically, and as he grabs at his lady for comfort or company in damnation, he leaves a bloody handprint on her bare arm. She begs him to take the daggers back or their plan will fail, but he refuses to confront Duncan's body again and finally she grabs the daggers from him, berating him as "infirm of purpose" and goes off to make sure all the evidence points to the grooms' guilt. Meanwhile, foreshadowing his wife's descent into madness, Macbeth tries to scrub the blood from his hands, all the while recognizing the futility of his gesture, because "all great Neptune's ocean" can't wipe out what he has done. He's startled by a tremendous knocking at the castle gates and Lady Macbeth comes back, her own hands bloody now, and gets in another dig at Macbeth. "My hands are of your colour, but I shame to wear a heart so white …" Macbeth, still lost in the contemplation of his crime, doesn't respond, and she pretty much has to drag him off to their rooms to clean up and change.

The knocking turns out be Macduff, and he's answered by one of the two people in this play with a Scottish accent - an old and very crusty Porter, ALSO played by Julian Glover, who is fabulous again, as he discusses the types of sinners who are in hell, and equivocation and many other things that made us all laugh but which I can't remember at this point. At any rate, the point is that everyone in the castle is very sound asleep indeed, but Macduff and Lennox have arrived to wake the King up so he can continue on his journey, and after they banter with the Porter for a while, Macbeth stumbles out in his dressing gown to greet them. Macbeth takes Macduff to the king's chamber and while Macduff goes inside, Lennox and Macbeth make chitchat about the weather. It turns out that Nature apparently decided to accompany Duncan's murder with one hell of a storm. Lennox says: "The night has been unruly. Where we lay, Our chimneys were blown down; and, as they say, Lamentings hear I'th'air, strange screams of death, And prophesying, with accents terrible, Of dire combustion and confused events New hatched to th' woeful time. The obscure bird Clamored the livelong night. Some say the earth Was feverous and did shake." To which Macbeth replies only, "'Twas a rough night." Hee! I like a snarky villain!

At this point, Macduff stumbles out, unable to describe the horror of what he's seen and Lennox and Macbeth go into Duncan's chambers. Macduff screams for Malcolm and Donalbain and the others to wake up and demands the alarms be rung, and on cue, Lady Macbeth arrives, asking what has happened. It's not a sight for a lady's eyes, Macduff tells her, little knowing that this lady has orchestrated the whole thing. Macbeth returns, his hands covered in blood again, and makes quite a show of his grief: "Had I but died an hour before this chance," he says, "I had lived a blessed time." It's interesting, because I don't think he's being entirely hypocritical here - some part of him evidently was still hoping that it was all a bad dream, that he didn't murder Duncan, and now, in the cold light of morning, with other witnesses, he knows that it's over, that he's damned himself. Malcolm and Donalbain arrive on the scene and are told that their father has been murdered, most likely by his grooms, whom Macbeth has summarily executed. When Macduff asks why, Macbeth launches into another frenzied speech about his grief and how the sight of Duncan's body maddened him so that he could not remain rational. It's a little too much, coming from Macbeth, and an odd contrast to Malcolm's composure - and Malcolm has already begun to suspect something is a bit off. Lady Macbeth senses that a distraction is in order and faints and Macbeth suggests that they all get dressed and meet in the hall. Donalbain and Malcolm hang back and Malcolm goes in to see his father's body. The sight makes him vomit, though he saves that till he's back onstage (this was a pretty effective piece of staging, at least if the point was to get the entire audience to say "eeeew" as one!) - and then he and his brother decide to take off before anyone gets any ideas about the rest of Duncan's family ending up with their father. Malcolm will go to England and Donalbain to Ireland, so they can wait out whatever happens in Scotland.

Their flight pins everyone's suspicions firmly on them, as we learn from Ross and Macduff in the next scene - Macbeth has been chosen as King and will be crowned at Scone, though Macduff plans not to attend and instead will return to his own castle at Fife. And finally, the last scene is of Macbeth's coronation as "king hereafter." It's not in the play, so there's no text - just some extremely effective visuals. First a cardinal dressed in VERY bright red robes (reflecting the blood Macbeth has shed?) comes out and says a prayer - he's followed by Macbeth, now in an olive green leather outfit, complete with the flag of Scotland as a cloak, and the whole thing is accompanied by the singing of the Latin Sanctus. Macbeth is crowned, and then he in turn crowns Lady Macbeth, who's in a lovely gown and a fur stole and lots of glittery jewellery and they face the audience, proud and triumphant. The curtain falls on the first half.

So, when last we left our hero, with Duncan murdered and his sons suspected of the crime, it looked like everything would be peachy for King Macbeth and his lovely wife.

Ha! Nothing of the kind … The curtain opens and we see Macbeth at a desk, going over paperwork, wearing a pair of wire-rimmed glasses very similar to Malcolm's. Macbeth is clearly uncomfortable in this new role - we've seen that he's very much a man of action and he looks almost trapped by his desk. His court, including Lady M, is gathered around him, but he's paying particular attention to Banquo, telling Lady Macbeth to make sure that Banquo is the guest of honour at the great feast they have planned for that evening. Banquo says that he's going for a ride before dinner, and Macbeth questions him very closely, asking him if he plans to ride far, and whether he will take his son, Fleance, with him. "Fail not our feast," he tells Banquo, little knowing what that command will provoke (this part actually reminded me a bit of Don Giovanni's foolish invitation to the Commendatore in Mozart's opera, in the sense that it's a Very Bad Idea. I've learned a very valuable lesson from these two - if you murder someone, don't make a big deal about inviting them over for dinner!!)

Banquo leaves and Macbeth dismisses everyone, including his lady, with the exception of a single servant. The servant, on Macbeth's command, goes to fetch two gentlemen with whom Macbeth has particular business, and while he is away, Macbeth tells us that he has decided to kill Banquo. "There is none but he whose being I do fear …", Macbeth says, because Banquo was witness to the witches' encounter and if anyone suspects Macbeth of Duncan's murder, then it is Banquo. But there are other reasons for Macbeth to hate his erstwhile friend - the witches promised that Banquo's children would be kings, and Macbeth is furious that he has murdered Duncan, and in doing so, imperiled his peace of mind and pretty much sold his soul to the devil for Banquo's posterity and not his own ("mine eternal jewel given to the common enemy of man to make them kings"). Macbeth has clearly grown into his murders - this time, it's not his conscience that plagues him, but the mechanics of it all. He has none of the mental anguish, the indecision, and the sorrow that he suffered before Duncan's murder. He has no need of Lady Macbeth to talk him into this one, because he is more than ready to murder this friend and kinsman.

At this point, the two murderers arrive, and it's frighteningly easy for Macbeth to order Banquo's death (and also interesting, of course, in that he will not commit this murder himself, but orders it to be done by others). Macbeth has apparently fed the two murderers a big long story about how Banquo blocked their paths to advancement (showing how much more manipulative he's become) and he taunts them with not being men enough to avenge the insults Banquo has supposedly done them. The murderers, now quite clear on the fact that their King wants Banquo dead, express their willingness to obey. Macbeth also orders the murder of the innocent child, Fleance, almost as an afterthought, but with the stipulation that Fleance's death is "no less material" than his father's.

Lady Macbeth, of course, is having something of the opposite reaction to everything. She asks a servant to tell the King that she wants to see him (and here we see the first changes in their relationship - it has become more ritualized and formal, instead of the passionate teamwork that we saw in the first act.) She reflects that " 'Tis safer to be that which we destroy, than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy." When Macbeth enters, she chides him for spending so much time alone with his terrible thoughts. "What's done is done," she tells him, but Macbeth counters with a reminder of the "terrible dreams that shake us nightly." It's better to be with the dead, he tells her, because at least Duncan is at peace. Lady Macbeth, somewhat alarmed at the turn this conversation has taken, tells Macbeth to be jovial for his guests, and that reminds him that he wants her to pay particular attention to Banquo, because Banquo is a threat to them. "You must leave this," Lady Macbeth tells him, clearly unaware of his plans, and Macbeth tells her to be "jocund" because before the night is over, "there shall be done a deed of dreadful note." Lady Macbeth asks him what he means, but he will not tell her. "Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck," and she frowns, afraid of what he intends. "Prithee, go with me," he says, and offers her his hand, but she shudders at his touch. Evidently, Duncan's murder has done quite the number on their sex life and their partnership, once so strong that they shared everything including the blood on their hands, is slowly dying. (Aww, poor homicidal couple with marital problems! There probably wasn't any counseling for that back in the day, huh?)

The two murderers are joined in the next scene by Macbeth's servant (one of the only three characters who have a Scottish accent - the Porter and Lady Macbeth's serving lass are the others. I'm not exactly sure what that's meant to say about the Scots, but I thought I'd throw that out there.) The murderers are all more willing than competent, and so they manage to kill Banquo, but Fleance escapes in the confusion.

The next scene is the great banquet that seems to be a sort of coming-out party for Macbeth and his lady. There's a big table towards the back of the stage, complete with silver candelabras, and everyone shows up in black-tie (or black-leather-tie) except Macbeth, who's still in his olive-green leather outfit. (Banquo's entrance is very cleverly done - the first time, I never saw him come in and sit down at the chair, and I had to watch very, VERY carefully the second time and pay close attention to which chair he sat in to realize that it was Banquo - though then I noticed that he carried his head at an odd angle. Which made a great deal of sense once he turned around!) Macbeth greets his guests in a very credible attempt at being "jocund", tells them to find their own places at the table. Lady Macbeth, too, now in a slinky evening gown with lots of lovely jewellery, is doing her best to be the perfect hostess and all seems to be going according to plan, until Macbeth spots his servant, who's just returned from the Banquo mission a bit the worse for wear. It turns out that the bloodstains are Banquo's - "Safe in a ditch he bides, with twenty trenched gashes on his head, the least a death to nature." Macbeth doesn't take the news of Fleance's escape very well at all.

Macbeth dismisses the servant and returns to his guests, only to find that there is no place for him at the table although one of the nobles points to an "empty" seat. Macbeth is surprised because the chair is clearly occupied, and then he's even more surprised when the occupant turns around. It's Banquo's ghost, dressed for a formal dinner, except that his face is a mask of blood. Macbeth starts in horror as Lady Macbeth tries to soothe their guests by telling them that this is just a phase, a little sickness that sometimes comes over her husband, and that they shouldn't pay any attention to whatever he says in his fit. Macbeth backs away from the ghost, which follows him in mocking silence, until Macbeth vaults over the dinner table to escape his tormentor. If Banquo were a "rugged Russian bear, the armed rhinoceros, or th' Hyrcan tiger", then he would be unafraid, but he cannot face the man whom he believed dead in a ditch. The ghost, having made its point, leaves, and Macbeth wonders at his guests' composure at the dreadful vision they've all seen - only to realize that no one else has seen Banquo's ghost. Lady Macbeth, sensing that her husband might talk a little too much in his fear, dismisses their guests, telling them that their questions and concerns are making her husband's condition worse and that they should leave at once and "stand not upon the order of [their] going."

Once the guests have left, she slumps down at the end of the dinner table, waiting for Macbeth to explain himself, although she knows, as soon as he speaks, that he has committed some other terrible crime, and that a dinner party in shambles is pretty much the least of her worries. "It will have blood, they say: blood will have blood…" Lady Macbeth, who probably doesn't want to know any more at this point, responds only when he asks her how late it is. It is nearly morning, she tells him, and is silent again when he wonders out loud why Macduff did not come to their feast. Macbeth admits that he has spies in the houses of all his lords and tells her that he will seek the council of the weird sisters. "For mine own good all causes shall give way," he says, and Lady Macbeth shrinks away from him, because, though he will not tell her directly, she understands what he he means to do. She tries to reason with him, briefly, perhaps to deflect his suspicions from Macduff, by telling him that he lacks "the season of all natures, sleep" and surprisingly, he agrees. "Come, we'll to sleep," he says, taking her hand, but Lady Macbeth fears her husband, who is "in blood stepped in so far" now. Macbeth keeps trying to touch her, because he doesn't understand her sudden revulsion, whereas she can't seem to wipe away the memory of his blood-smeared hands, or her fear at what he has become, and she runs from the room in horror. It's almost sad, in a way, to remember how passionate they once were, because their relationship is now as dead as Banquo and Duncan - we will never see them together again after this point. Macbeth stands, puzzled, for a minute, and then goes to seek out the Weird Sisters for their advice.

The witches appear in the next scene, draped over Macbeth's marriage bed, waiting for his entrance. Edward Hall decided to eliminate all the summoning of Hecate and the various apparitions that appear in the play and just to have the sisters themselves provide all further prophecies, and I thought this staging worked beautifully. This is a seduction into total evil - a brilliant echo of Macbeth's seduction by his wife in the first half of the play and a neat counterpoint to her rejection of his sexual overtures after Duncan's murder. Wearing nothing but a pair of black trousers (a most welcome and justifiable costuming choice that was clearly meant to show his vulnerability - what? It sounded good in my head … and the fact that I needed a cup to catch the drool has nothing whatsoever to do with anything at all …) Macbeth kneels at the foot of his bed, and one by one, the witches wind themselves around his body, sexy, and pliant and utterly deceitful. They tell him everything that he wants to hear - that he should fear Macduff, the Thane of Fife, that he should be "bloody, bold and resolute … for none of woman born shall harm Macbeth", and that he "shall never vanquished be until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him." Given his rather compromising position at this point, it's understandable that he forgets how the witches' other prophecies have played out in rather surprising ways in the past.

Macbeth can't let well enough alone - the prophecies about Banquo's children stick in his gullet, and he has to know whether they will come true. "I will be satisfied," he tells the witches, and they drag him from his bedroom to show him the visions of the future. They flash three mirrors into his face, and he sees the terrible line of kings with Banquo's features - all his crimes were for nothing because they will serve only to benefit another man's children. He collapses onto the floor, his head buried in his hands (and gives the audience a really exceptional view of arms and back and tattoos and where was I again?) and the witches, their work done, vanish. When Macbeth finally composes himself, he is determined "to crown [his] thoughts with acts, be it thought and done." He means to seize Macduff's castle, "give to th' edge o' th' sword his wife, his babes, and all unfortunate souls that trace him in his line." And with those words, his doom is sealed and he is truly damned, because now, at last, his conscience does not trouble him at all. He has no need for elaborate justifications any more - the fact that Macduff stands in his way is all that is necessary for innocents to perish.

We meet those innocents in the next scene - a heavily pregnant Lady Macduff is reading a book to her younger son, when Lord Ross arrives. She begs Ross to tell her why her husband has fled to England, leaving her at the mercy of those who would do them harm. It's not clear from the text whether Ross knows or suspects Macbeth's intentions, but in this production, it seems that he knows what is to come, and yet he doesn't warn Lady Macduff and he certainly doesn't stick around to help her (perhaps out of fear of being tarnished with the traitor's brush, or perhaps because he feels that this outrage will cause Macduff to rise openly against Macbeth - the only certainty is that Ross is a horrid weasel!) She doesn't, of course, believe that she's in any danger - her concern is all for her husband - and she engages in a little small talk with the precocious Master Macduff, who wonders why the liars and swearers don't "beat the honest men and hang them up." Their chitchat is interrupted by a messenger, who warns Lady Macduff to flee with her children because they are in mortal danger, before he runs off up the flight of stairs (where he's stabbed by one of Macbeth's men.) "Whither should I fly?" Lady Macduff wonders. "I have done no harm," she says, "But I remember how I am in this earthly world, where to do harm is often laudable, to do good sometime accounted dangerous folly."

And with that, Macbeth's henchman, including the servant who murdered Banquo, burst in, carrying the body of Macduff's older son. They ask Lady Macduff where her husband is, and tell her that he's a traitor. Her younger son insists that the murderer is lying, and the murderer picks up the boy (who bites him), bounces the lad on his knee as he stabs him, and then tosses the body to the floor like a rag doll. Lady Macduff crawls to the bodies of her children and one of Macbeth's henchmen thinks it's great sport to kick her as she does. Darkness falls as the murderers drag Lady Macduff away. This was easily the most horrific scene in the play, both because the victims this time were children, and because the murderers (and their master) are so casual about what they do - there's none of the anguished soul-searching that Macbeth did before he murdered Duncan. Lady Macduff and her children don't even merit Macbeth's spurious self-justification for Banquo's murder. They're just in the way, and they're removed with the passion of someone taking out the garbage. Ironically, of course, it is this ill-considered act that will prove to be Macbeth's downfall, and after watching this scene, it's hard not to cheer Macduff at the end.

Speaking of Macduff, when next we see him, he is in England (indicated by the shadowy banner of St. George flying above and the sound of the chimes of Big Ben), meeting with Malcolm. Ever mistrustful, Malcolm proceeds to test Macduff's loyalty by pretending to be every bit as awful and conscienceless as Macbeth, accusing himself of all manner of crimes and vices. Malcolm was well-played, but I found him (purposely) somewhat repellently cold (so much so that I had no idea why Macduff fell for his line about "your wives, your daughters, your matrons, and your maids should not fill up the cistern of my lust…" because a less lusty fellow would be hard to imagine.) Anyway, as Macduff turns to leave in disgust at the fact that the rightful heir to the throne is no better than the usurper who murdered Duncan, Malcolm tells him "just kidding" (or words to that effect, anyway) - it was all a test because he feared that Macduff had come to spy for Macbeth. Macduff doesn't have time to be offended at the lies, because at this point, Ross enters and after some prompting and a glass of whisky, tells Macduff the dreadful news about his wife and children. Mark Bazeley (Macduff) was absolutely fantastic in this scene - he howls in grief, and then, unable to comprehend the enormity of Macbeth's crime, he asks, over and over, "my children too? My wife killed too?" Malcolm (who evidently doesn't understand Hallmark moments) tries to cheer Macduff up. "Be comforted," he says. "Let's make us med'cines of our great revenge to cure this deadly grief." To which Macduff responds: "He has no children." It's another one of those great ambiguous lines - does he mean that Malcolm has no children and therefore cannot comprehend the desolation that the news of his children's murder has brought him? Or does he mean that Macbeth has no children (none living, anyway, despite Lady Macbeth's acknowledgement early on that she'd "given suck") - and that therefore, Macduff cannot make Macbeth feel the pain that he feels? Macduff continues to lament his family, and Malcolm tells him to "dispute it like a man" (shut up, Malcolm!) Macduff tells him, brokenly, "I shall do so; But I must also feel it as a man. I cannot but remember such things as were most precious to me." Eventually, he gathers himself together and promises that he will take care of the "fiend of Scotland."

Meanwhile, back at the fiend's house, one of Lady Macbeth's gentlewomen has summoned a doctor to deal with her mistress's strange nocturnal wanderings. They discuss the symptoms that she's exhibited (sleepwalking, a refusal to be without light) and the odd things that she's said, and then Lady Macbeth appears on the scene. She's a far cry from the regal and elegant woman whom we saw earlier in the play - her nightgown is sweat-stained and her mascara has run down her face, and she is tormented by her crimes and those of her husband. "The Thane of Fife had a wife. Where is she now?" Lady Macbeth sobs in her anguish, and scrubs the flesh of her hands raw to remove the smell of blood that will never go away, as the doctor and the gentlewoman look on in horror and the growing suspicion that they're not meant to hear any of this. "What's done cannot be undone," she realizes, and then runs away with her candle, screaming at the ghosts in the darkness. Samantha Bond was superb in this scene - so terrifying in her loss of control and her guilt and though it was, perhaps, a fate richly deserved by Lady M, she still made me ache for the character's mental and physical disintegration.

The day of reckoning is on its way for all of them - in the shape of England's armies, loaned to Malcolm by the English king, and commanded by Lord Siward, the Earl of Northumberland. In this staging, the English soldiers wear ski masks and carry machine guns and look like nothing so much as movie images of IRA terrorists, and don't seem to predict a very happy future for Scotland.

Macbeth (once again with shirt, though it's the lovely open mesh one from early in the play) waits in his castle for their approach, confident that he will defeat them because he knows that he is invincible until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane, and that Malcolm, born of woman, is no match for his own prowess. His confidence is shaken a little by a report that ten thousand soldiers march on Dunsinane, and he is aware that his life is hollow and empty, devoid of meaning. "I have lived long enough," he says. "My way of life is fall'n into the sere, the yellow leaf, and that which should accompany old age, as honor, love, obedience, troops of friends, I must not look to have." Still, he calls for his armor, determined to fight "till from my bones my flesh be hacked."

Then he turns to the Doctor and asks after his patient, Lady Macbeth, who is, apparently, still unable to sleep properly. "Cure her of that," Macbeth demands, and grabs the man's lapels. "Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased, pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow, raze out the written troubles of the brain …" But the Doctor tells him that's beyond his own capacity ("therein the patient must minister to himself") and Macbeth flings him away, bellowing "Throw physic to the dogs. I'll have none of it …" though he does wonder if the doctor has a purgative to clear out the English.

The English are now in Birnam Wood, and Malcolm orders each soldier to cut himself a bough of wood and carry it in front of him, in an attempt to disguise the army's numbers as they advance on Dunsinane. He is confident that no one supports Macbeth except under duress and so he feels that his army will prevail.

Macbeth, for his part, is sure that Dunsinane can withstand a lengthy siege, as famine and illness decimate his enemy's armies. The ghosts of Macbeth's victims come to watch his downfall - Duncan props himself against a pillar on the left side of the stage, Banquo stands behind Macbeth, and Lady Macduff and her children look down on him from above, but he is oblivious to their presence, though his preparations are interrupted by a terrible scream. He sends his servant, Seyton, to investigate, and Macbeth muses that he has "almost forgot the taste of fears …" because he has "supped full with horrors. Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts, cannot once start me."

Seyton returns to inform Macbeth that his queen is dead. "She should have died hereafter," Macbeth says, his voice cracking a little. "There would have been time for such a word" and then sprawled on his throne, he wonders how it has all come to this, how all his ambition and the murders he's committed to achieve it amount to no more than "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." I read some critiques of Sean Bean's performance of this most famous of "Macbeth" speeches - he was chided for being "flat" by a couple of reviewers, but actually, I thought it worked very well. This is a man at the end of his tether, who is, at this point, bereft of everything that gave his life meaning (the respect of his peers, the love of his wife, his conscience and his soul's salvation), and so I think a certain flatness and emptiness are entirely suitable to the nihilism of his world view.

And as if to compound the blows, his unlucky messenger enters to tell him that it looks as if Birnam Wood advances on Dunsinane. Macbeth knows, deep down, that this is the end for him, that the witches' prophecies have betrayed him. So he squares his shoulders and prepares to meet his fate. "I 'gin to be aweary of the sun, And wish th' estate o' th' world were now undone… Blow wind, come wrack, At least we'll die with harness on our back." However abhorrent he has become, there is a certain dark magnificence to him, a charisma that makes his descent into evil and his inevitable death something painful and tragic and this scene is a little reminder of that.

The battle is joined and Macbeth appears trapped. Siward's son accosts him and they fight briefly (one of the few things that I didn't really like about this production was the juxtaposition of the machine-guns and the sword fighting at the end, because I kept wondering why someone didn't just fire a gun … but that's me) before Macbeth kills him. Macbeth is feeling pretty feisty and confident again - "Swords I smile at," he says, "weapons laugh to scorn, brandished by man that's of a woman born …" and exits, looking for more people to kill. Macduff turns up, moments too late, desperate to find Macbeth and avenge his family's murders, and chases off into the mist. Siward and Malcolm arrive and Siward tells Malcolm that the battle is nearly won and that the castle is his.

Macbeth, however, refuses to "play the Roman fool" and fall upon his sword, preferring to kill others. And now Macduff finds him and tells him to turn. Macbeth, with a strange attack of conscience, at first refuses to fight Macduff. "My soul is too much charged with blood of thine already." But Macduff won't take "no" for an answer and forces Macbeth to fight him. Macbeth's a better swordsman and is clearly getting the better of Macduff until he makes the mistake of mentioning the witches' prophecy that no man of woman born can kill him. This is Macduff's chance to gloat because, as he tells Macbeth, "Macduff was from his mother's womb untimely ripped…" and therefore he is not of woman born.

Macbeth finally comprehends how the witches have betrayed him, and he drops the point of his sword. "I'll not fight thee," he tells Macduff, so Macduff tells him to yield and "live to be the show and gaze o' th' time. We'll have thee, as our rarer monsters are, painted upon a pole …" This stings Macbeth, who swears that he will not "yield to kiss the ground before young Malcolm's feet and to be baited with the rabble's curse." Prophecy or no, he'll fight until the death. They fight some more, and finally, Macduff stabs Macbeth using the same move that Macbeth used on Macdonald in the opening scene of the play, and our bloody and glorious tyrant is no more.

In the final scene of the play, Malcolm congratulates Siward on their victory, Siward discovers that his son has died, but seems not to take the knowledge terribly hard, and then Macduff impales Macbeth's head (which I must say was an awfully realistic likeness of Sean Bean) on the spike at the top center of the stage and brings Macbeth's crown to Malcolm. It should be a moment of rejoicing, except that Siward's English soldiers turn their machine guns on the Scottish lords who have fought beside Malcolm, and Macduff suddenly realizes that he may have killed one tyrant only to benefit another.

And thus endeth Macbean! Of course, a friend of mine summed it all up perfectly as "Murder bad. Sean Bean pretty," which is really a pretty good motto!

This review originally appeared on Queen of Thorns' website:

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