The best feature of Peter Evans' Macbeth, as with his previous Bell Shakespeare production, Julius Caesar, is the wonderful clarity he finds in the spoken poetry of the play. The images and figures of the verse seem crisp and contemporary. Unfortunately, there's not much else to recommend this production, apart from a few impressive monologues standing out like isolated trees on a blasted heath.
Evans has a great talent for arranging and measuring his scenes in such a way that Shakespeare's relentless verbal genius is constantly at the fore. Macbeth, perhaps more than any of Shakespeare's works, with the possible exclusion of Hamlet, is littered with speeches and turns of phrase that have become lodged in our language as cliché. Trying to scrub these back and find the original gleam in them is a great challenge, yet Evans and his cast manage it well.
They do not, however, manage the drama of the story with as much success. This production lacks a necessary visceral energy and labours under an excess of dubious novelties.
At heart, the problem would seem to be the determination of director Peter Evans and dramaturg Kate Mulvany to discover a comprehensible motive for the bloody usurpation. Their contention is that the Macbeths are obsessively grieving over the death of their child. Their bloody quest is thus undertaken as a kind of marriage therapy, to repair their damaged love for one another and recover the erotic spark of former years. They project their domestic tragedy, their childless grief, onto the political stage, transforming their private sorrow into the sorrow of a nation. It is plausible in the telling, but inadequate when it comes to the stage.
Dan Spielman is an underwhelming Macbeth. With all his eyeliner and super-expressive Meyerhold-ian crouching and posing, he seems more like the celluloid hero of a black-and-white melodrama. Several of his monologues are excellently spoken, and his work in the key scene with Banquo's ghost is moving, but the overall feeling is that he is too ineffectual for a Macbeth. There is nothing brutish in him, and very little lust. When Lady Macbeth challenges him to be in act and valour as he is in desire, we wonder if he was all that great in his desire.
Kate Mulvany, as Lady Macbeth, gives a brilliant twist to her two key monologues, joining them with a simple but effective theatrical gesture that I won't spoil here. Taken on their own they make an impressive portrait of repressed grief. But they can't be taken on their own, and the rest of her performance is clinical, giving very little insight into the psychotic alchemical transformation of grief into bloody ambition that this interpretation would seem to require.
In fact, the only one who really seems to get it – to understand that this is brutal murder – is Colin Moody as Duncan, the first murder, who is head and shoulders above the rest in his feeling for the play. He is grave and weary, but also has a streak of something primitive in his wild staring that connects with the temper of the play.
Far from a play steeped in blood, blood seems everywhere absent. Even where the Macbeths enter with bloody hands after the slaying Duncan, the blood is too neatly applied. It looks like they're wearing red-sequined gloves. Not a splash on the costumes, of course.
Anna Cordingley's set consists of a large square of synthetic grass, worn down in parts, set at a crazy tilt toward the audience and strewn with leaves. Damien Cooper's lighting gives it an outdoors, floodlit appearance, so that altogether the design suggests a post-apocalyptic tennis court. Above this looms a long, dusky mirror, catching an ethereal reflection of the action below. Although they seem ill-matched with the text and other costume choices, the gaudy turquoise military jackets worn by Duncan and this thanes show up very prettily in this mirror.
The rest of the costumes aim at emphasising the domesticity of the action. The princes and thanes look very chappish as they model various cowl-necked pullovers. They wouldn't have looked amiss in aCountry Life spread from the 1970s, very Highlands chic. Special condemnation is also due for the treatment given to the weird sisters, reduced to one witch and played by Lizzie Schebesta. She becomes a kind of cuddly bedroom nymph, capering about the tennis court in her underwear and a woollen jumper, writhing on the ground and orgasmically arching her back every so often.
Kate Mulvany on Macbeth