Scary stuff

The Weird Sisters make murderous witnesses in John Caird's production of Macbeth. Heather Neill reports


Almeida Theatre, London Until March 5 Tel: 020 7359 4404

Director John Caird makes no bones about the power of Macbeth: "I think we should be genuinely frightened. It's a terrifying play. We need to be taken in Macbeth's world and to contemplate what would motivate any killer." He is confident that Simon Russell Beal can "go into the darkest spaces and also fully inhabit Macbeth's intellectual capability. Macbeth is intellectually complex and tortured, not a blunt instrument".

Nevertheless, when Malcolm, the new king, describes him as a "dead butcher" in the final speech, Caird means us to concur. It will be clear that Macbeth could have stopped killing after the murder of Duncan. "He doesn't need to kill Banquo. He should adopt his son Fleance - the prophecy would be satisfied and the friendship remain intact - but he can't bear not to have a child of his own to follow him, so he attempts to beat the prediction. He tries to persuade the murderers that Banquo is their enemy, but they don't need motivating; he is persuading himself."

Worse, Caird has Macbeth turning up personally among the killers of Macduff's family, including the children, "because we felt he would. He is fascinated by what a woman would look like when her children are being killed. As he gets deeper into evil, he dies inside, can't feel anything.

His mind unravels. At the end he is like someone in his bunker - Hitler or Saddam Hussain - who thinks the world sees through his eyes. He suddenly understands when he is told that Birnam Wood is on the move."

In rehearsing, says Caird, "it has come to seem more important that the Macbeths had a child who died, a grief in the past that can't be made up for". Lady Macbeth he sees as a tragic figure: "She wanted too much and couldn't cope with the consequences. The sleep-walking scene is intensely moving: she is deep into remorse and repentance, remembering the child she lost when thinking of those killed by her husband."

Duncan, usually played as a saintly old soul, is, Caird believes, paranoid and insecure, playing into the hands of his murderers (although Macbeth carries out the act, it is clear that neither could have done the deed alone). Macbeth could rightly expect to be elected king after his triumphs on the battlefield, but Duncan names his young son instead. "He reads Macbeth's disappointment and, because he needs him - he and Banquo have just rescued Scotland from total shambles - and wants to stay in his favour, announces he is coming to stay. He posts guards on his bedroom door and sends his hostess a diamond. This is not the behaviour of a confident monarch. It is essential we empathise with Macbeth in the first place to hold our interest; if Duncan is too saintly his murder is gratuitous and inexcusable."

The Weird Sisters play an unusually important part: "They appear in other scenes - the first witch is one of Banquo's murderers - and they blow out Macbeth's candle at the end. They have an authorial view as witnesses."

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