Macbeth in Review

Triumph for Alan Howard

Richard Eyre's new production of Macbeth, designed by Bob Crowley in the Olivier, is everything you'd expect it to be: scrupulously prepared; highly intelligent; visually exciting. All it needs, especially since it's played sans interval, is a greater sense of momentum - as if the characters are propelled by events they cannot fully control.

From the start, Eyre and Crowley successfully create a plausible universe on stage. It's militaristic, male dominated and fantastically ominous. We get a premonitory glimpse of Alan Howard's Macbeth surrounded by a Mahabharata-like circle of fire. When he and Banquo confront the witches, they emerge from the shadowy, sinister recesses of an up-stage forest. Duncan and his triumphant soldiers celebrate their military victory under a harsh working light.

Time and time again the production displays a sense of long-range planning: the washtub in which Macbeth and his wife cleanse their bloodied hands after the murder inevitably returns as a haunting symbol of guilt in the sleepwalking scene.

What is also striking about this production is its early stress on Macbeth's murderous intent: the witches simply articulate a desire long implanted. When Banquo quizzes them about his own fate, Howard's hand instinctively goes to his sword as if ready to strike him down. And you realise this is a man steeped in hypocrisy when he greets Malcolm's elevation to heir apparent with a glassy-eyed smile behind which you can almost hear the brain ticking.

One of the evening's main pleasures is seeing Howard restored to a major Shakespearean role. He combines an extraordinary gift for a speech's architecture - hitting a sustained rising cadence on "Is this a dagger?" - with the ability to pounce on a key phrase. He also clearly establishes Macbeth's practised duality, power mania, scorpion-filled mind and fear of barreness.

All the right ingredients are there. But at the moment the performance is a shade calculated, as if the final act of transubstantiation had yet to take place.

However, a strong sexual bond with Anastasia Hille's youthful Lady Macbeth is clearly suggested. With her swept-back hair and strong Nordic features, Hille offers an impressive study of a bustling pragmatist who, like her husband, has a well-preserved social mask - she even offers a bunch of bluebells to the arriving Duncan.

What she also conveys well is the eventual splintering of that mask and Lady Macbeth's humiliating reduction, in this fiercely male society, to a manipulated sexual object.

So much about this production is right: the destructive militaristic ethos; the sense of England (all white flannels and tea on the lawn) as a fertile alternative; the clearly sketched supporting performances from Robin Bailey as a triumphalist, soldierly Duncan, Clive Wood as a power-hungry Banquo and James Laurenson as a morally alert Macduff without the ability to dissemble. But, while each scene is assembled with great care and while Jean Kalman's lighting and Dominic Muldowney's music help to create an almost Ninagawa-like elegiac mood, there is a slight lack of inward propulsion at the moment. Eyre and his team lay out the play with exemplary clarity: what I still crave is the jagged nightmare sense of "life's fitful fever" and of characters hurtling precipitately to their doom.

Michael Billington

Guardian, 3.4.93.


Alan Howard and Clive Wood


Playing Shakespeare/Macbeth