Combat Gear and Daggers ; Macbeth RSC Swan, Stratford

By Butler, Robert | The Independent (London, England), November 21, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Combat Gear and Daggers ; Macbeth RSC Swan, Stratford


Butler, Robert, The Independent (London, England)


There are many ways to do Macbeth modern - I've seen the expressionist version, the Hare Krishna version and the one without the witches - but the way Antony Sher did it at Stratford last week stands out as the best. Through the sheer intelligence and ruthless unsentimentality of his verse- speaking he compels us to find the role immediate and modern. He is saying it now.

Gregory Doran's thrilling new production opens in pitch darkness and the drum-rolls and cymbal-clashes set the pulse for the driving pace of the first act. We see professional soldiers with bullet- proof jackets, berets and revolvers, who might as easily be fighting on a Balkan hillside as on a blasted Scottish heath. Doran has managed to merge old worlds with new ones while sparing us glaring anomalies.

Macbeth and Banquo (Ken Bones) enter on the shoulders of their troops: Sher's compact general is quick and efficient - a man of action, in no doubt about who he is. When he and Bones meet the three sisters - in their battered trenchcoats these women could be war-torn refugees fleeing from one village to another - Sher is amused by these strays and what they have to say.

An outstanding virtue of this production is that we can gauge exactly when certain ideas kick in. With Sher, his grimy jaw twists involuntarily as his mind pauses on "the horrid image" as it enters his head. As he speaks of his "vaulting ambition" his body shrinks from the words he has just uttered. When Harriet Walter's Lady Macbeth tells her husband that Duncan won't be leaving their house, there is a notable silence while Walter washes her husband's mud- stained face with a flannel and we watch the suggestion take hold.

Sher's command of the text is absolute. That fruity emotionalism which so often repels us - where an actor seems to be having a better time than we are - is entirely absent. Again and again he uncovers new colour and meaning in familiar lines, pushing the range of tone within a single speech to exhilarating extremes. This Macbeth doesn't recoil in horror when he first sees the dagger before him: he brushes it away, as a sceptic might a piece of nonsense, and then finds himself returning to it.

Doran embraces the play's melodrama without embarrassment: after the opening darkness, bells chime, owls cry and thunder rolls, candles appear to extinguish themselves, and chairs fly away from the table. But he negotiates the more treacherous areas - the weird sisters and their bubbling cauldron, Banquo's ghost and the line of eight kings - with a sureness that never teeters on the ludicrous.

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