Macbeth @ Albery Theatre, London

cast list
Greg Hicks
Sian Thomas
Clive Wood
Louis Hilyer
Pal Aron

directed by
Dominic Cooke

The short season of Shakespeare’s major tragedies at the Albery theatre comes to a resounding end with this excellent production of Macbeth. The Scottish play is a very different beast from the other tragedies which the RSC have recently performed; with a pared down running time of two hours, and no interval, the play is almost cinematic in its linearity. It is taut and tense, the often brutal action having a rawness which is sometimes lost in the magnificent sweep of Hamlet or Lear.

The title role is taken by Greg Hicks, who recently excelled as the ghost of Hamlet’s father. The most impressive aspect of that performance was Hicks’s physicality, the manner in which he used his body as much as his words to express the torments he had suffered in purgatory. This boded well for Macbeth, who rivals Othello as the most physically adept of Shakespeare’s heroes. The play begins with glowing reports of Macbeth’s achievements on the battlefield; by the time he enters, he has been established as a mighty warrior, so it is necessary to find an actor who reflects this and Hicks does so admirably.

I imagine, however, that his performance will divide audiences. Hicks delivers Shakespeare’s verse in an idiosyncratic style, almost chanting the lines at times, with a curiously lilting intonation. There is much debate as to whether Shakespeare’s lines should be delivered as verse or as naturalistic speech, and some might feel that Hicks errs towards treating the words as poetry, thus depriving them of feeling. I felt, however, that Hicks managed to tread a fine line between these two extremes, and that his delivery was in keeping with the austerity of both the character and the play.

The production also suggests an interesting reading of the play, in which the root of the tragedy is not located in Macbeth’s ‘Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself’, but rather in his lack of children. The overt sexuality of his relationship with Sian Thomas’s Lady Macbeth is in stark contrast with their lack of offspring: in a sense, the closest Macbeth’s brutality comes to an explanation is when Clive Wood’s Macduff, hearing of the slaughter of his wife and children, cries ‘He has no children.’ There is a suggestion that, if Macbeth had a son of his own, his ambition could have been dissipated by his hopes for the future: as it is, he becomes entirely captivated by the present, forced to act now if his actions are to have any meaning at all.

Thomas acquits herself well as Lady Macbeth, especially in the difficult scenes of madness; although perhaps, as with her portrayal of Gertrude in Hamlet, she lacks the variety of facial and bodily expression which her voice deserves. Similarly, Wood’s performance fails ultimately to fully act as a physical or emotional counterpart to Macbeth himself. Stronger turns come from Richard Cordery as a suitably gregarious Duncan, and from Forbes Masson who excels as the porter, one of Shakespeare’s more bizarre and intriguing creations.

If there has been a unifying theme in the productions of these plays by the RSC, it has been an attempt to avoid locating the action of any play too strongly in any era or location. Macbeth makes use of costumes and military iconography from a variety of periods. The effect is one of timelessness, an attempt to allow the plays to be judged as far as is possible in and of themselves. This perhaps denies this Macbeth, as with the other productions, the true greatness which comes with a brilliantly original reading of the play carried through to its conclusion. But there is something to be said for allowing the magnificence of the play itself to shine through; this is precisely what this production of Macbeth succeeds in doing admirably.

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