Critical opinion is sharply divided over Richard Eyre's new production of Macbeth at the Olivier Theatre. Some fiercely dislike its circumambient gloom and Alan Howard's melodious thane: others, myself included, find it gets close to the play's dark, poetic heart. My only reservation is that both Eyre and his star actor make their points in a rather calculated, emphatic way. But that may be a consequence of doing the play in the big, open space of the Olivier instead of the intimate, far more suitable, Cottesloe.

Still, at least Eyre and his designer, the ubiquitous Bob Crowley, create a believable universe on stage: what Walter Scott called a "Caledonia stern and wild".

Alan Howard and Anastasia Hille

Macbeth and Banquo, drained by battle, emerge from the dark recesses of a shadowy forest. The thane's castle is a place of towering, curved battlements and lowering stone walls, reminding me of sketches from one of Gordon Craig's design books.

And everywhere there is flame suggestive of an underground hell: the weird sisters are glimpsed behind a flickering light, and Macbeth is twice ringed by a circular jet of fire that led one friend to dub him, somewhat unkindly, Thane of Calor.

How you react to the production depends very much on your feelings about Alan Howard. He takes Macbeth's great soliloquies - not least "Is this a dagger?" - on a rising curve, as if searching out their music. But to me, it is a fine performance in that it conveys the character's essential duality: false face, murderous heart. From the start, you feel he has been long nurturing the idea of king-killing, even putting his hand to his sword when Banquo intervenes with the witches. Howard, however, sleeks o'er his rugged looks, exuding a dangerous bonhomie to Duncan, his fellow thanes and even, at the last, his few paltry followers. What the performance shows, very cunningly, is how the practised hypocrisy of the assassin eventually turns into the self-delusion of the tyrant.

Howard's Macbeth is also plausibly in thrall to a young, hollow-cheeked, Nordically blond Lady Macbeth (Anastasia Hille) who is given, a touch improbably in view of the climate, to roaming her castle in a flimsy nightie. Sexual enslavement makes psychological sense: it also adds a pathos to Lady Macbeth's ultimate rejection. The moment of Miss Hille's impressive performance that stays with me is her request to a servant: "Say to the King I would attend his leisure for a few words." Lines I had never noticed before suddenly become an index of the character's solitude and desolation.

It is a sign of an intelligent, well thought-out production - unlike the National's deplorable A Midsummer Night's Dream - that would give any newcomer to the play a sense of its greatness as an anatomy of evil. It also boasts a notably good Banquo from Clive Wood, who seems to have an eye to the main chance. I just wish it were played a bit quicker, to give an idea of the nightmarish speed with which retribution follows action in this disordered world. But I am puzzled by the foaming fury the production has aroused in some of my colleagues, for it conveys, very theatrically, the darkness, blood and fire at the heart of Shakespeare's tragedy.

Michael Billington

Country Life, 22.4.1993.

Playing Shakespeare/Macbeth