Macbeth - Reviews - Bernard Cornwell

Last Update: 07 January 2003

Source: The Sharpe Appreciation Society
December 2002/January 2003

Bernard Cornwell, writer of the Sharpe novels, went to see Macbeth and has written his own review of the play, published as his latest communique in the Sharpe Appreciation Society Bulletin, issue 45, Dec 02/Jan03.

You are in for a treat.

I mean those of you who have signed up to see Sean Bean's Macbeth at the Albery Theatre in London. It's a terrific evening of theatre and Sean is, simply magnificent.

Now some of you may have seen some bitchy reviews and you might have been put off by them, and I'm not a professional theatre critic, but I do go to the theatre often and I've seen Olivier, Richardson, Gielgud and O'Toole in Shakespeare's plays, I've seen Macbeth three times and I've gone to Shakespeare productions at the National and at the Royal Shakespeare Company. I read Shakespeare. I memorise him. I like him. And I had read most of the reviews of Sean's Macbeth and admit that I was wary. The critics (there were honourable exceptions in the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph) panned this production, mocked it even, and through their verbiage I gathered that the first half was sort of right and the second half a failure, so when I went last week I was quite prepared to walk out at the interval if I was having a bad time. I didn't walk out. The first half was brilliant and the second half was better. Don't believe the critics - this is a terrific production, full of life, attack, action, emotion and surprise. I have not enjoyed a Shakespeare production so much in twenty years.

It was not perfect. I thought some of the minor characters were not well cast, but the major trio - Macbeth (Sean), Lady Macbeth (Samantha Bond) and Duncan (Julian Glover) were wonderful. Really. And the staging is electrifing. I went with friends and one of them said at the interval that this was a Macbeth that its original audience, back in 1603, would have recognised and what he meant by that was that it had a freshness and a vitality that is often missing from Shakespeare. Too many productions lead you to the shrine and invite you to worship, this one sucks you into a bloody tale of murder, betrayal, ambition and downfall. It is shamelessly entertaining.

Edward Hall (the director) stages the play in modern dress, and that works well. The set suggests a gloomy castle somewhere in the cold north, and that works too. The lighting is dramatic, flames and stabs of bright white, but none of this inventiveness would succeed without an intelligent reading of the play, and Edward Hall provides that. The story is about a good soldier, Macbeth, who allows his ambition to tempt him to murder. Thereafter he is a turns remorseful and implacable. Originally he is egged onto evil by his wife, but as the play progresses he overtakes her and she is left behind unable to cope with the blood her ambition has unleashed. The play is full of images of blood and nightmares, but it begins with a couple, Macbeth and his wife, and we see them in love. And we see Macbeth, the decent, good soldier, turn into a bloody tyrant. This is difficult stuff to act, even with the help of the world's greatest playwright, but Sean makes it look easy (do not, for one moment, think that it is - it's a very difficult part for any actor, but Sean masters it). And in the great set pieces, the famous bits, he is excellent. The play contains one of the most famous soliloquies, "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps on this pretty pace from day to day ..." Now, any actor facing this passage has a thousand ghosts at his ellbow - all the great names who have spoken this chilling speech before - and he knows that people will compare him with them. That's hard, very hard, but Sean gave the speech with a quiet intensity, full of feeling, and I suspect the ghosts applauded. Samantha Bond tackled the sleepwalking scene (another one where the ghosts gather) with equal skill.

So sod the critics. So full of it their eyes are brown. Why did they dislike it? Probably out of snobbery - they like being taken to the shrine and they have an elitist fear of 'popular' productions, but Shakespeare was a huge populist. He wrote for the 'groundlings', the folk who paid their pennies and wanted a good afternoon at the theatre, and this production gives you an idea of the excitement the audience must have felt when the play was first staged. This is a Macbeth for an audience, a Macbeth to make you stand up and cheer at the end, a Macbeth that crackels on the stage. So go and see it! And if you can't make it in January then they have just extended the run through February, and if there is any justice they will extend it beyond then, and one day, far in the future, you will be able to say you saw the great Sean Bean production of Macbeth.

Bernard Cornwell

Thanks to Evi for typing this.
Reprinted with the permission of Chris Clarke and Bernard Cornwell.

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