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A CurtainUp Review

By Lizzie Loveridge

The Scottish play is problematic and of the dozen or so productions I have seen of Macbeth only a few satisfied fully. Here from the Royal Shakespeare Company, directed by the man who is tipped to be the next incumbent of the RSC head chair, Gregory Doran, is a darkly innovative, sensory and excitingly staged, Macbeth.

The auditorium at the Young Vic, one of London's reliable studio venues, is flooded with overly bright spotlights as the audience trudge in. This is so that when the play commences in absolute darkness, we can see nothing of the three weird sisters, only hear their strange cries. Our hearing too is overexposed, deafened by the crashing of thunder in the most dramatic opening of the play. So we are sensorily disorientated. Macbeth (Antony Sher) and Banquo ( Ken Bones) are carried in, shoulder high, sweating, their faces blackened from the fire of battle. Above the stage two Japanese Taiko drummers set a frenetic pace and soldiers rush about underlining this production's vibrant physicality.

At two hours ten minutes without a break this is one of the shortest ever adaptations of Macbeth. The length gives the play considerable intensity as any scene which drags, has been expunged. The downside of this is that there is little time to establish Macbeth's character as a noble and honourable soldier before he becomes the victim of his own ambition. Sher's Macbeth barely pauses to consider what he should do before murdering Duncan. Even as he prostrates himself before the king, who is a guest in his house, his intention is evil. An old white haired man, tall, clad in medieval robes like an archbishop, with a movingly sonorous voice, Duncan (Trevor Martin), is saintly. Sher, on the other hand struts, stocky in modern military battledress, or square shouldered tuxedo, full of sinister intent. Sher's speed of decision also gives Lady Macbeth (tall and stately Harriet Walter) a less prominently nasty role.

Doran's staging is outstanding. Banquo's murder again takes place in darkness lit only by torches, one flash giving us the briefest glimpse, a single frightening image of a man being stabbed. In the banquet scene, the ghosts are Sher's own demons as he stares into space. Later we see the form of eerie faces pushing through a vinyl sheet, like partially shaped sculptures. The banquet scene segues into the heath as the three weird sisters spring onstage, up turning the table hanging off the cross bars and squirming in a dance of pelvic thrusts.

Stephen Brimson Lewis's set has a dramatic drawbridge which descends from a rear wall of old and broken stone which allows a memorable entrance for Lady Macbeth. There is a parapet, like a balcony, at either side a metal spiral staircase and high overhead, a crumpled canopy of steel grey gauze masks the machinery.

The night I saw Macbeth, many of the audience were schooldchildren, for whom Macbeth is routinely the first introduction to Shakespeare's plays. This rapid, physical production had them silenced and attentive. They will remember the thunderous staging but one can't help wondering if they had time to assimilate any of Shakespeare's beautiful verse.

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Gregory Doran

Starring: Antony Sher, Harriet Walter
With: Diane Beck, Noma Dumezweni, Polly Kemp, Trevor Martin, John Dougall, Robert Whitelock, Ken Bones, Christopher Olivares-Chandler, Edward Brown, Nigel Cooke, Diane Beck, Alistair Strong, Ben Inigo-Jones, Paul Webster, Guy Moore, Richard Armitage, John Killoran, Stephen Noonan, Glenn Chapman, John Kane, Jeff Alexander, Polly Kemp,
Set Design: Stephen Brimson-Lewis
Lighting Design: Tim Mitchell
Sound Design: John A Leonard for Aura
Music composed and directed by Adrian Lee
Movement: Siān Williams
Fights: Terry King
Running time: Two hours ten minutes with no interval
Box Office: 020 7928 6363
A Royal Shakespeare Company Production at the Young Vic, The Cut, Waterloo, London SE1 To 3rd June 2000. Sold out but 12 day tickets are available every day, released at noon, queuing starts at 10 am. Also try ticket agencies.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 5th May 2000 performance

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