January 15, 2005: Shakespeare, Macbeth

Almeida Theatre. Directed by John Caird. With Simon Russell Beal as Macbeth and Emma Fielding as Lady Macbeth

A brilliant production all around, with a lucid, penetrating Macbeth; a prod­­uction that brings to the foreground the play’s emphasis on progeny — and its lack. Lucidity and simplicity are in fact together the hallmark of the produc­tion. The small stage of the Almeida was beautifully adapted. We see a large circle, crisscrossed by irregular lines; concentric with it and surrounding it, an outer circle something over a meter in diameter. There are two distinct and often separate acting areas. Outside the outer ring is a gap up through which light can be shown and smoke can be passed, sometimes creating a kind of screen, a sort of scrim made of light and smoke through which characters can pass almost as if they are walking through a solid medium of some kind. The stage, like Shake­speare’s own, is bare. The only furniture is a stool or two; five are used for one scene. This staging and every feature of the production are characterized by simplicity and economy, removing all barriers to a fully comprehensive present­ation of the action and meaning of this absorbing play. It is a study of an ambit­ious and intelligent man who fatally misinterprets the way the world works.

This is ensemble playing at its best, and the Banquo (Silas Carson), the Ross (Billie Carter), and the Macduff (Paul Higgins) are especially fine; John Rojan doubles well as the Porter and the Doctor. Emma Fielding is true to the demand­ing role of Lady Macbeth, playing the unwaveringly strong, ambitious lady with a singleness of purpose right for the role. On this almost uniformly blank stage she carries a lighted candle in a small pot almost as large as her hand on stage along with the letter that Macbeth has sent her; she has already read and memor­ized its contents and now says them over again while holding the letter to her breast. She then sets a corner of the letter on fire and burns it up. That candle will of course be brought on stage by her again in the sleepwalking scene, set down on the floor while she attempts to wash the blood from her hands — and then left there to burn through the remainder of the play. It flickers continuously through Macbeth’s despairing “Out, out, brief candle” speech, and is finally extinguished (by one of the three weird sisters, whose well-timed presence in the play is note­worthy and who serve among other ways as Lady Macbeth’s women late in the play) only at the very end. When the candle is blown out, there is a blackout that ends the play.

Beale’s Macbeth is supremely alive and sharp-eyed. He has an ability to make the audience believe he is thinking the whole time. Even while he talks, sometimes at a fairly rapid conversational pace, the words appear to be gener­ated at the moment of their conception. And he intersperses this precise delivery with occasional pauses, some of them quite long, while he fixes his eyes on his interlocutor. Beale’s Macbeth is constantly scrutinizing the world as it appears before him, and he fixes his gaze unerringly on the object before him — as in the dagger scene. Sometimes that object is an idea, to which he gives his whole attention. “Look how our partner’s rapt,” Banquo observes early in the play, as we see and hear Macbeth turning over, in soliloquy, the predictions he has just heard the weird sisters pronounce. Beale combines that quality of raptness with a fierce attentiveness. I have never seen a more focused character than his Macbeth. And this prepares us for the dénouement in which Macbeth begins to realize that the weird sisters have betrayed him, just as Banquo explained would happen: the “instruments of evil” equivocate so as “to betray us in deepest consequence.”

Macbeth’s lively imagination combines with his very aliveness to messages from the world at large to accomplish this betrayal; and Beale’s profound grasp of the character works perfectly enmeshed with Caird’s approach to the play to generalize its central meanings. This is a very clearly staged production, down to the last setting. Silas Carson’s Banquo is never better than in the ghost scene; we see his persistence and single-mindedness, as he sits in Macbeth’s chair or unnervingly follows him around the room or backs up as Macbeth advances on him; this is all positively frightening. At this point there is no question whether we believe in ghosts or not, his presence is so palpable.

It will be clear that I liked this production immensely. I have seen some good theatre on this trip to London (I always do), but this is far and away the best I have seen, for many a moon. Corin Redgrave’s Lear was competent and interesting and certainly worth seeing, but it was fairly eclipsed by the intelli­gence and coherence and sheer single-mindedness and sustained, focused brilliance of Beale’s Macbeth. At this point anyone who has seen both produc­tions must certainly be saying to themselves, How long must we wait for Beale to do Lear?



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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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