The lights dim to black on the Almeida production of Macbeth. The stage is circular, a malevolent disc surrounded by a head-high back wall of indistinct grey, like the ooze-covered interior of a frightful damp cavern. The acting area itself is an archaeological echo of a medieval castle tower. All that is left of this tower is the stone floor, a circle of broken flagstones surrounded by an outer foundation which encompasses and del ineates, no wider than a graveyard path and just as ominous.
A pencil-thin ring of light rises from around this inner magic stone circle; palls of miasmic smoke emanate from a fissure that metaphorically and visually leads straight to Macbeth's personal hell. Three 'weird sisters', dressed in the detritus of early modern womanhood, glide malevolently onto this stage, pressing their ashen-grey faces and black and sunken eyes into the piercing light, illuminating their features like children's horror masks. The Almeida's triumphantly subtle and underplayed production of Macbeth has begun.
The weird sisters are no witches cavorting in pantomimic madness; these women are old, wis e, with the curse of foresight. Suffering the persecuted wisdom of an ancient pre-Christian skill, the weird sisters enunciate their prognostications with a world-weary resignation.
Throughout John Caird's masterful evocation of everyday horror and humour, the theme is that of the malicious child, the game which ends in painful tears, the torment of a man unable to shake off the petulance of youth and arrogant search for power. Of a man driven by his wife and his own fateful ego to deeds beyond, we hope, the comprehension of humanity. Even so, Macbeth's deeds smack of the mundane, the awful struggle for power and self-aggrandizement that is played out in every boardroom, classroom, factory floor. Except this game-plan ends in murder and blood and tyranny on a microcosmically grand scale.
Simon Russell Beale plays the tormented Macbeth. The intimacy of the Almeida is perfectly suited to this deeply disturbing and surprisingly psychological thriller. Russell Beale is a solid, stocky actor. Round ruddy face and sprouting beard, short muscular legs and barrel chest, he is hardly the narrow-minded casting director's first image of the warrior Scots lord who murders his king to fulfil a destiny related to him on a blasted heath.
That is where Russell Beale's strength as an actor lies. His performance of Macbeth is a masterclass in the understated. Gestures are kept to a minimum, his voice almost at a whisper, confiding his innermost thoughts to an audience who listen in abject horror as his narrative unfolds. Russell-Beale delivers the text with a naturalism which conveys the reality of every situation. The famous lines are punctuated by an apparently naturalistic search for just the right word, just the right phrase, to truly express Macbeth's convoluted thought processes. Russell Beale communicates the schizophrenic ordinariness of Macbeth as no actor has ever done for me before. It is his ability to relate to all women, to all men, and to remain a fallible human being that makes him perfectly suited for this infamously difficult role.
Understated but totally understood, Russell Beale's Macbeth is doomed from the moment he hears the weird sisters. Incredulous at first, Macbeth is tempted by that which in an alternative reality would be beyond his grasp -- except through murder of sovereign, friend, women and children. In a remarkable reinterpretation of the plot, Caird places Macbeth at the murder of Lady Macduff, crouching like a hunting dog, face pressed against hers, as he relishes the death-pangs of this innocent wife and mother. This Macbeth has already soiled his hands with Duncan 's blood. Now he is content to breathe in Lady Macduff's last breath as another's hand slowly slips the blade into her back. Macbeth enjoys this murder. Macbeth is sadistic predator, whose mask of affability seldom falls. It is this danger which makes Russell Beale's interpretation so exciting, so intoxicating, so menacing.
Russell Beale's Macbeth is balanced by a superb Lady Macbeth in Emma Fielding. Part matronly, all feminized power in a gender-restrictive age, Fielding manipulates her husband with suppressed orgasmic fury. Fielding plays the dutiful hostess at the banquet as Banquo's ghost nods his gory head at the distraught Macbeth; her explanation for her husband's behaviour is sympathetically believable. Likewise, Fielding's portrayal of her own guilt-ridden personal madness, the frantic wiping of hands, is painfully real in its mental anguish. The sighs of Lady Macbeth tear at the heart; not so much sighs as suppressed screams from a soul already suffering its own private purgatory.
The doubts surrounding the unfolding events in Scotland force many to flee for their lives. Macduff, played by Paul Higgins, is one such escapee, although the price he pays for his freedom is a lifetime of bitter regret at the loss of his family. When he receives the news of his family's murder -- almost literally at the hands of Macbeth -- Higgins conveys all the emotional turmoil of a grieving father and husband. In Macduff perhaps we get a taste of Shakespeare's own experience of personal grief at the death of his young son, Hamnet. Higgins communicates this grief with stomach-wrenching believability.
John Rogan's Porter, also doubling as the Doctor, provided a clarity of performance that brings the bitter low humour of the play back to life. In such a dark tragedy, Rogan's simple dialogue with the audience was at once welcome and enjoyable. Likewise, Tom McKay as Lennox creates a character whose sudden appearances in the Macbeth's lives are occasionally unwelcome and inopportune, causing their plotting to halt in mid-sentence as they suspiciously observe the observer. Lennox 's reactions to the onstage manoeuvrings of his lord and mistress perfectly illustrate the incredulity of Macbeth's court and country as they watch the tyranny unfolding in all its gory glory.
The Almeida Theatre, with its principal sponsorship from Coutts Bank and the production sponsor Aspen Re, have created a wonderful evening's entertainment; a spectacle at once disturbing and enlightening. There is humour, a dark humour that draws an occasional knowing laugh from the audience. Fundamental to John Caird's production, however, is a clarity of narrative that brings a period-dressed play into the twenty-first century. If you see no other Macbeth in your lifetime, see this one.
Kevin Quarmby © 2005