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A dark place

Heather Neill talks to director Dominic Cooke about the major themes in his production of Macbeth

Macbeth. By William Shakespeare. Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Stratford-upon-Avon

Dominic Cooke is setting his RSC production in an unspecified, but vaguely 19th-century time, taking a cue from his belief that Shakespeare's plays are set in made-up worlds of their own. The Weird Sisters he sees as outsiders, but not as, in some productions, merely disaffected vagrants.

"It is important to embrace magic and the supernatural, to have one foot in this world, one in the world beyond. A lot of contemporary productions tend to rationalise, to explain away, but these powers cannot be explained."

The relationship between men and women is fundamental, says Cooke. "This is a world which excludes the feminine. Women don't have much of a place unless they are producing heirs. Lady Macbeth is bright, driven, but she has little space to express herself except through her husband. It is clear she has had a child, but we are told Macbeth has no children, so we assume they had a child but lost it. She has thus failed as a woman and Macbeth's status, without an heir, is diminished. He is also diminished as a man; Lady Macbeth constantly questions his masculinity when she is persuading him to take action. It is essential that we believe in Macbeth as both a soldier and a poet - or that he has a poetic imagination. She is more literal-minded, practical and sensual. She has a certain naivete; he is aware of the consequences of his action. The seeds of Lady Macbeth's breakdown are, thereafter, Duncan's death. She hasn't the emotional capacity to deal with her spiralling imagination as Macbeth has."

Macbeth is celebrated for killing on the battlefield, but killing the king is different, says Dominic Cooke. "In a symbolic sense it is killing God or father, which is anti-nature".

Shakespeare imports the latter idea of the divine right of kings into the medieval story.

When Duncan's son, Malcolm, who is exiled in England, tests Macduff by warning that he is unfit to rule, he is not, says Cooke, playing a cruel game: "He is in the wilderness; he has lost his father and his world has fallen apart. He thinks he may not be up to the task."

Cooke sees a sense of nihilism in Macbeth at the end of his life. In the soliloquy after his wife's death there is a kind of redemption in facing the brutal facts as he realises that he has created the situation. It is essential, he believes, that we see these as people going through a dark place (there are numerous images about night in the play), rather than being simply evil.

Heather Neill

In repertoire from March 6 to October 2. Tel: 0870 609 1110 (tickets). RSC Education. Tel: 01789 296655

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