International: London Notices
December 2002/January 2003
David Jays at Macbeth
There is a sudden crack of lightning, and the audience shrieks. Soon after, Sean Bean's Macbeth slams a traitor's severed head on a jagged shard of wood, kicking off a Macbeth that is tense, fast and vicious - it might be Lynda la Plante's Macbeth. Edward Hall's new production is certainly more successful than the last West End attempt with Rufus Sewell.
It is brusque (though he adds a child's nightmare, a grim coronation to the cut text) with startling touches. The trim witches dress Macbeth, as if he is in some way their creature, and they all look just like Samantha Bond's Lady Macbeth, with tumbling auburn hair and elegant slips. Holding hands, they wander over the stage between early scenes, but later disappear.
The production is full of such pungent but unresolved images that migrate from scene to scene. Julian Glover, for example, follows his perplexed, avuncular King Duncan with the disreputable porter, oddly slipping back into kingly accents for "I pray you, remember the porter."
A muscular set by Michael Pavelka confines the play within heavy structures of blackened steel. Pavelka is Hall's regular designer, and their butch productions (Henry V and Julius Caesar for the RSC, or Rose Rage, an abattoir distillation of the Henry VI plays) nonetheless probe the vulnerabilities of armoured masculinity or rampant nationalism.
Sean Bean proves excellent casting, a strong-jawed lion on the battlefield in a battered leather coat and fraying black mesh. But he stumbles, halts, quakes: Bean's Macbeth sets out to quash his own juddering terrors, and all but stifles himself. This Macbeth truly doubts whether "vaulting ambition" is motive enough for regicide, though his ardour is undoubted; he takes an involuntary step forward as the king announces his heir, and can't wait to leave to conceal his disappointment. But he is also so scared; he has a spectacularly hysterical fit at the banquet - Banquo's unusually corporeal ghost bears down on him, even assays a headbutt - and wakes, bare-chested and huddled on the floor after a nightmare vision of the witches. A Geordie amid all the suits, he remains an outsider (and the accent is perfect for the play's clotted imagery.)
Samantha Bond highlights Lady Macbeth's blinkered softness. Bed is central to the letter scene, and to their relationship - Bond and Bean make a very horny couple, and you smile just to see them. Even when she pushes Bean too hard, and he flares up, there's an astonishing crackle between them. They are both generous in soliloquy, basking in the present tense. Bond doesn't seem to notice consequences, Bean wants to buy into her reality.
Hall emphasises the dynamic of a vertiginous play. Before long, Bond is pacing aimlessly through the castle, flinching from her husband's touch: you can't believe they've reached this alienation so rapidly. After the banquet, Bean says, "You're but young in deed," and an appalled Bond runs off the stage. As the relationship with his wife withers, Macbeth entwines with the lookalike witches, who writhe from his bed for snogs and prophecy, and stifles his former shaking self until it seems horribly plausible that he has "forgot the taste of fears." Like him, Lady M becomes estranged from herself, sleepwalking with hair chopped about, tear-stained and crouching, until she no longer resembles her own witchy doppelgangers.
The production includes some excellent supporting performances: Barnaby Kay's Banquo, his open face clouding with suspicion; Adrian Schiller fantastically cold and pale as Duncan's weirdy son; willowy Mark Bazeley and Claire Swinburne as the Macduffs.
Hall also gives good gore - someone on the technical team has worked on the stickiness that makes palpable the tragedy's crimson imagery. When Bean distractedly puts bloody hands to his hair, or a murderer brandishes evidence of his crimes, it seems no mere stage effect, so that by the time Lady Macbeth imagines the gummy stuff on her hands we know how she feels.
Only Schiller's price is bloodless in this production, and he takes charge in the closing moments - arresting his own supporters, throwing a chilly gaze on Macduff. It makes a sobering end to an evening staged as a dark and bloody thriller.
(Thanks to Kathryn for typing this)
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