Daggers and a scalpel give the Scottish play an unspiritual power, says Brian Hayward.
Macbeth is good news and bad news. By tradition it is bad news for theatres, who only put on the "unlucky" play because they are short of money. For schools, it is always good news; at the last count, 92 per cent of school children study the play, and theatres putting on "the Scottish play" can bank on school buses in the car park.
More good news for teachers taking parties to the Citizens' is that director Robert David MacDonald has taken his scalpel to the text, added a handful of tiny improvements of his own, and run the play straight through without an interval in 97 minutes. Missing are the opening "war correspondent" passages, Lady Macduff and much of the scene in England. Likewise the final battle is much shortened, and every cut serves to throw the central character into greater prominence.
This is Gerard Murphy's second Citizens' Macbeth (the first in 1979) and this time round he brings a middle-aged, battle-hardened and careerist military leader, for whom "vaulting ambition" simply comes with the territory. This is not a man whose mind could ever be "full of scorpions". Rather his rhetorical style holds both the supernatural and the personal at arm's length, and mocks the doubts and fears that might undermine him. This "cool" style lies at the very centre of MacDonald's dispassionate, humanist view of the play - a tragedy of "no more heroes" in a world without spiritual dimension. The witches, for example, are three disinterested men, played by actors who at other times are Ross and Angus, the three murderers, the Doctor and others. Evil, MacDonald is saying, is not "out there" but in ourselves, our envy and jealousy, fear and despair.
Except, that is, for Lady Macbeth. Anne Myatt delivers the traditional "fiend-like queen", utterly humourless, monomaniac in her ambition and iron-hearted in her determination to persuade her husband to regicide. When she demurs from murdering Duncan herself, on the grounds that he resembled her father when he was asleep, you sense it was for her no more than an irritating coincidence. Even in the sleep-walking scene, where you might see a broken woman and a mind diseased, she seems to be suffering from a treatable sleep disorder. Lady Macbeth, you feel, got no more than she deserved.
Instead, the tragedy is of the common man, represented here by Brendan Hooper's Porter, in an increasingly dishevelled dinner suit. What was for Shakespeare a comic interlude between Duncan's murder and its discovery is gently inflated by MacDonald into the running joke of a comic drunken butler, undone by a bottle he steals from the banquet, who thereafter seems to belong to another play or even music hall. It is in every way a sobering epilogue that Malcolm's victorious rejoicing, accompanied by the jolly "Sports Report" band music, is counterpointed by the Porter cradling and mourning his own dead son.
Much of Macbeth's enduring appeal is in the way it blends "mist and mystery" with the most accurate observation of human behaviour. This production is strong on "mistery", with Kenny Miller producing a disorientating set of medieval stairways and spaceship doorways, with costume and lighting similarly ancient and modern. But even in this timeless setting, it is important that human nature is sharply observed, and that the precise writing is respected. If Macbeth says the phantom dagger is drawing him in the direction he was going, then it should. If Lady Macbeth is going "directly" to bed, then she ought not to be heading for the guest bedroom.