Presented by the Almeida Theatre Company at the Almeida Theatre, London. January 13-March 5, 2005. Directed by John Caird. Design and Costumes by Christopher Oram. Lighting by Nell Austin. Sound by John Leonard. Fights by Terry King. With Simon Russell Beale (Macbeth), Emma Fielding (Lady Macbeth), Silas Carson (Banquo), Paul Higgins (Macduff), Ann Firbank, Jane Thorne Janet Whiteside (Weird Sisters), William Gaunt (Duncan, Old Siward), Tom Burke (Malcolm), Ben Lambert (Donalbain, Murderer, Young Siward), Billy Carter (Ross),Tom McKay (Lennox), Sara Powell (Lady Macduff), John Rogan (Porter, Doctor), Richard Stacey (Captain, Seyton), and others.
Simon Russell Beale has famously called acting "three-dimensional literary criticism," (Patti Taylor, "A Performer At His Peak," The Independent 14 January 2005). In John Caird, Beale found a director willing to join him in a relentless exploration of Macbeth's tormented, withering spirit, albeit at the expense of Macbeth as a model of thrilling theatre. The action took place on an empty stage, a bare, gray circle enclosing a turntable, which lent itself to the Macbeths' trapped prowling of the perimeter. Perhaps inspired by the Holinshed illustration, the witches were beardless and nicely turned-out in Elizabethan gowns. They doubled as Lady Macbeth's elderly waiting women, and one of them appeared as Banquo's Third Murderer, all with no change of costume. Only the witches' blackened eyes, like empty sockets on the dimly lit stage, intimated the supernatural.
Caird worked hard to generate an eerie ambiance. John Leonard supplied a muffled off-stage buzzing, the wailing of women, and ultimately their laughter. Serf-hypnotized, swinging a chain from which hung a diamond (Duncan's hostess-gift), Macbeth delivered his "Is this a dagger?" soliloquy as smoke rose from the space between the turntable and fixed stage. It rose again when Macbeth's mind became the cauldron, into which the witches dropped their ghastly images. In response to Macbeth's nihilistic questioning, white-gowned children ran about the stage, ventriloquizing their fines through the witches. This was one of several nods to Freud's reading of childlessness at the heart of Macbeth's ambition. The child apparitions, however, might have been taken for third-graders at recess, and Silas Carson's tall, wiry, "blood-bolstered Banquo" could have served as Abbot to Beale's short, stout Costello.
Whereas the more gimmicky effects failed to generate a sense of the uncanny, some of the subsidiary characterizations were imaginative. Lady Macbeth, a primly attractive young wife given to instructing Macbeth in the voice of a no-nonsense school teacher, was affecting in her mad scene. As she mimed frenetically washing her hands, her entire body trembled. Caird seemed indebted to Holinshed for an ambiguous Duncan, who looked the part of the saintly patriarch but seemed pompous, arbitrary, and suspicious of Macbeth. Taunting Macbeth as he thanked him, he dangled a crown before him, gave him his scepter to hold, and then crowned Malcolm. Banquo's suspicion of Macbeth was eclipsed by a father's pleasure in raising a son; his disquisition on "the temple-haunting martlet" was addressed not to Duncan but to Fleance, a paternal natural-history lesson. Macduff, distinguished by a strong Scots accent, at first responded paternally to Malcolm's lies, then tried to make a man of Scotland's heir, whose callow, macho response to his loss angered him. "He has no children," was an impulsive gibe, which he followed with defiant insistence on the right to give way to grief: "But I must also feel it as a man. …