Losing out on Shakespeare

By Morley, Sheridan | The Spectator, March 13, 1999 | Go to article overview

Losing out on Shakespeare


Morley, Sheridan, The Spectator


To be or not to be a permanent company? Just as we lose the Peter Hall company at the Piccadilly, just as Trevor Nunn launches, on all three stages of his National Theatre, the first residential season to play on the South Bank for almost 20 years (with a group of actors on year-long contracts in everything from Troilus and Cressida to Candide), and just as the RSC faces up to the agonising choice it has to make between big stars on necessarily short-term contracts for one show each, or a team of lesser players willing to stay longer, we get two useful West End reminders of the dangers of the old star system in the classics.

First the Robert Lindsay Richard In at the Savoy, a weird music-hall turn in which the star seems to prefer working with the audience rather than his fellow players, and now the Rufus Sewell Macbeth at the Queens where again the effort to get his name on the poster seems to have exhausted all other thoughts about how and why the play should be conceived for the contemporary West End.

We are now, amazingly, back to where Donald Wolfit left us about 50 years ago; one big star doing his thing, with precious little money left over for scenery and costumes and a supporting cast who appear to have been instructed to watch politely from the sidelines, not so much acting as being acted at. Essentially it becomes ego-Shakespeare, and we are all the losers.

For his Shaftesbury Avenue debut as a director, John Crowley has chosen to give us a minimalist regional studio-staging which might just about get by somewhere miles from anywhere and starved of Shakespeare, but looks decidedly cheap at West End prices. Rufus Sewell is indeed charismatic as Macbeth, recalling an odd hybrid of the young Oliver Reed and the young Albert Finney, but he gets very little backing, even supposing he were willing to look for it, from Sally Dexter's curiously wan and underpowered Lady Macbeth, and a supporting cast of catastrophic weakness, many of whom seem to have strongly Irish rather than Scots accents.

As for Jeremy Herbert's set, virtually non-existent in the first half, it gradually comes to consist in the second of an indoor swimming-pool for Macduff's castle and a black cardboard box which entombs Macbeth until, intentionally or not, he puts his foot through its cardboard side in a fit of rage, though whether at the production or his imminent defeat is not entirely clear. …

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