“Blood will have blood,” Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most atmospheric plays, charting the murderous tyranny of the Scottish warrior king who kills his predecessor for the crown and then seeks to secure his throne with further crimes. But in what is a relatively simple premise, productions often fail to fully reconcile the play’s competing drivers, the psychological complexity of the central character, the supernatural hand of fate that uses prophecy and magic to create an overarching inevitability, and the warlike state in which the uncontainable ambitions of men are given bloody reign. What productions of Macbeth fail to decide is just who or what is in control.
It has been a long time since a truly satisfactory Macbeth appeared in the West End while beyond at the capital’s fringe venues again and again the power of Shakespeare’s text is weakened by poor decision-making and an assumption that the story is far easier to stage than it really is – get it right and the play is a glorious howl of pain that will dazzle and electrify an audience with a complex world of violence and retribution they will never forget, get it wrong and the whole thing clangs like a discordant bell, as the National Theatre discovered with last year’s disastrous version starring Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff set in an inexplicable post-apocalyptic world of bin bag trees and concrete where only hierarchy had survived.
But suddenly the tide may be turning and good Macbeths are like buses, none for ages and then two come along at once. In late August, Antic Disposition brought their fantastic traverse production to Temple Church which smartly integrated the witches into the nineteenth-century household of the Macbeths as servants and messengers permanently shaping and controlling the action as Harry Anton’s wonderful Thane of Glamis crumbled under the weight of his murderous burden. And now, in Chichester, John Simm’s Macbeth directed by Paul Miller offers a more deterministic approach to the character that pulls away from the brute strength of the seasoned warrior to offer a cerebral and often sardonic take on Macbeth’s responsibility for his own actions while developing a partnership of malevolent and ambitious equals with co-star Dervla Kirwan as Lady Macbeth.
Staged in the hexagonal Chichester Festival Theatre, the action takes place on a glass stage raised above a permanently exposed circle of rocky landscape. Designed by Simon Daw, the set is at once the blasted heath upon which Macbeth first learns of his destiny from the Weird Sisters, remaining visible throughout as a reminder of the point at which his life was irreversibly set upon this path, and it also represents the rugged landscape of Scotland above and for which the characters endlessly contend, the audience reminded of the bigger prize at stake. But there are other interpretations for Daw’s choices; the scarred earth devoid of grass could also suggest the permanent battlefield, a state of national warfare against the invading Norwegian army that becomes a civil war for the crown of Scotland – the battlefield also being the place in which Macbeth forged his character and earned his first plaudits from King Duncan, ones that inspire his ruthless quest for greater advancement.
This earthy pit also becomes a burial ground for several characters, if not all consistently, the glass stage parting to receive the bodies of Macduff’s son (a little awkwardly) and of Banquo, a nod to the shadow of inevitable death that hangs over the play, as well as the pile of bodies that Macbeth’s conscience accrues from the soldiers who die in the opening battle to the final murders that announce the play’s end game. But there is one more possibility that presents itself and Daw’s covered pit may also represent the way in which we fetishize and misuse history to suit our current political and social purpose.
Historians have long debated the practice of placing everyday objects from the past behind glass screens in museums, investing them with a reverence they never held during their period of use. Thus, the glass platform above the landscape may imply the ways in which Macbeth actively misapplies his own history and experience as a successful military leader to facilitate his role as King and dictator. There are strong notions of power and it corrupting influence which run throughout the production, showcasing how a lack of legitimacy needs to be circumvented, so the preservation of the blasted health / battlefield / earth of Scotland behind this glass screen speaks to Macbeth’s own misguided preservation of purpose that determines his behaviour and shores-up his despotic regime.
There is, for the most part, a fascinating intensity to Miller’s production, moodily lit by Mark Doubleday to create an eerie and intimidating world of dark deeds. The first half runs up until the death of Banquo and has a real momentum as events accelerate quickly to place Macbeth on the throne with plots and conversations taking place in shadowy corners and half-lit portions of the stage that well exude the gloomy oppression of the Macbeths’ castle. Particularly striking is the scene immediately after Duncan’s murder in which the blood-soaked figures of Macbeth and his wife are thrown into elemental relief by two well-position spotlights that cross the stage, simultaneously bathing them in light and darkness like other worldly beings. Just before the interval, Miller and the creative team create the feeling that everything is now in place, and Macbeth’s ascendancy is guaranteed.
If the second half of this production doesn’t quite fulfill the promise of the first it is by no means a reflection on the interpretation of the central characters whose interaction and stage presence is gripping throughout. For part two it is really a question of tone and two crucial decisions that interrupt the flow of the action. First, arguably, the interval comes at the wrong point and while the second half opens with a strong version of the Banquet scene, a longer piece of contextual exposition between two interchangeable soldiers drains the tension and could have been cut to make way for the fiery witches cauldron that follows. Bathed in red light and using Tim Reid’s psycho-horror video design (that looks better in the photos than it does on stage) this would have been a stronger opener, as well as a chance to mirror the focus on the witches at the start of Act One.
The second fateful decision is to play the tediously long scene between Malcolm and Macduff in full which switches the focus from the more engaging intrigues of Macbeth’s psychological decline to a sunny day somewhere else. Running for more than 10-minutes but feeling longer and weakly performed, it is a scene that adds very little to the play except for textural purists. Partly it is too focused on a character no one cares much about regardless of the production, but also creates an unnecessary “light” break in the carefully constructed tension of the preceding hours. Miller has worked hard, has earned our undivided attention and this scene pulls us out of the much more interesting perspective of Macbeth while we wait for key information to be delivered to Macduff. The airy birdsong and spring-like feel are a confusing distraction in a show that has otherwise focused on the ambition of one man and the horror his action perpetuates. Both these choices temporarily derail the action in what could have been a slightly tighter production.
Nonetheless, John Simm has seized the opportunity to make the character his own, using his own ability to play dark humour to bring a different angle to the performance. His Macbeth makes perfect psychological sense – a rare achievement in a difficult character to pitch – ensuring that his relationship with Duncan is less ingratiating than often seen and frustrated by his decision to make Malcolm his heir. Just as Christopher Ravenscroft’s softly spoken Duncan starts to announce his decision, Simm subtly shifts his weight as though about to step forward to claim his rightful place, only to be stunned to hear a lesser rival’s name. It is this outrageous dismissal that goads his Macbeth to consider murder, an arrogant certainty that carries him through the rest of the play.
Simm may not be a brutal thug who could tear a man to pieces, but his Macbeth is a dangerous figure – an understanding of quiet menace that Simm brings from his Pinter successes – so certain of his destiny, of a right to rule and his invincibility that after he is crowned his personality awkwardly changes towards old friend Banquo, a paranoid suspicion creeping into the performance that sours their affection for one another. Equally, Simm’s Macbeth refuses help from his co-conspirator, ejecting his wife to make gruesome decisions without further consultation. There is no question that this Macbeth knows his own mind and follows it relentlessly, full of his own agency that leaves him notably alone as the rebels surround the castle, a deluded, isolated figure on an empty stage clinging calmly to his certainty that he will prevail.
And Simm brings real clarity to Shakespeare’s verse, not only delivering the lines with a feel for everyday conversation but with a true understanding of every image and classical allusion. The soliloquies are delivered with confidence and while this is not a Macbeth whose mind is wrenched to pieces by his crime, Simm uses them like Hamlet to explore the conflicting emotions that chart Macbeth’s fluctuating journey through his own ability to order and control his thoughts, bringing small touches of gallows humour to draw out different dimensions in the role.
Dervla Kirwan as Lady Macbeth is every bit as good, developing an early partnership with Simm that suggests a marriage of true equality in the early part of the play as they both embark on their joint endeavour. Kirwan is a tower of strength to her husband, helping him to overcome his doubts when his resolve crumbles, confident that the opportunity is perfectly within their grasp if they stick to her plan. She’s not an evil Lady Macbeth but a very smart one, speaking in hushed tones as she urges her husband to the action she knows is right, while later assuming the magisterial dignity her husband lacks when she struggles to shield her guests from the effect of Macbeth’s visions.
Kirwan’s performance is the rock around which the rest of the production is anchored, stately and calm, the character’s determination which Kirwan evokes creates this balance in Lady Macbeth’s marriage that lasts until the point of Duncan’s death, making her husband’s decision to cast her aside so shocking. The sense of complete partnership between them broken by his decisive isolation, and as Shakespeare takes great leaps with the character off stage, Kirwan conveys Lady Macbeth’s own descent into madness with sympathy and credibility.
Among the surrounding cast, Stuart Laing’s Banquo impresses as Macbeth’s warrior comrade, divided by the witches prophesy that generates jealousy and fear between old friends, while Michael Balogun as Macduff conveys his own fury well, although the final confrontation between the antagonists is strangely short and underwhelming. Some of the secondary characters however are less clear, often more a distraction from the central storyline than helping to stoke the unfolding drama.
Is there a West End transfer in here -potentially. This two hour and 50-minute production does need a trim and the tone has to refocus more consistently on the driving intensity of Macbeth’s jagged purpose, but Dew’s multi-interpretative set-design has much to say about the various underlying themes of the play and has true purpose in the context of the action. It has been a long time since the West End saw a truly great Macbeth so perhaps this is a chance for Simm and Kirwan to buck the trend with impressive performances that offer a different perspective on their characters while creating a potency in their exchanges that is never less than compelling.