Set play

12th May 2000 at 01:00

Royal Shakespeare Company at the Young Vic, London

This vivid, swift-paced production, with Antony Sher as the murderous thane, would be an excellent introduction to Shakespeare even for those not studying the text. From the first moments, when the Weird Sisters utter the opening lines in complete darkness, there is a strong sense of atmosphere. Darkness and gloom, symbolic of moral murkiness but also providing a sense of northern wintry medieval chill, pervade the entire action under Gregory Doran's sure direction. The story proceeds like a headlong thriller.

Victorious in battle, Macbeth and Banquo (Ken Bones) enter carried in triumph on the shoulders of their comrades to the tumultuous sounds of a Te Deum: medieval Christianity finds a tiny corner in this pagan, primitive world. The reference to the "cat i' th'adage" seems to have informed some line interpretations: several times, Macbeth and his wife seem to be quoting well-known sayings, even once in unison, and to be relying on charms and proverbs in a world where superstition is the normal climate for decision-making. The only jarring note is the mix of costumes and props, especially the rifle which appears at the end of the play, only to be used, by way of its bayonet, as a dagger. Perhaps it was unnecessary to remind us in this unequivocal manner that civil war i still with us in Europe; the psychological progression of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth (a brilliantly neurotic Harriet Walter) is real and "modern" enough to imply that human nature is much as it ever was.

In the final sequence, the cornered Macbeth seems not to have sufficiently recovered his wits to die nobly. Sher gives us a cavilling, slightly batty ex-hero who can still fight, but who needs to be looked after by long-suffering servants; he has paid a severe price for his material success.

Playing without an interval allows the nerve-jangling (and logical in terms of Macbeth's state of mind) move directly from the banquet scene, where Macbeth sees Banquo's ghost, to the apparition sequence. The witches, perhaps part of the physical landscape, perhaps always in Macbeth's head, erupt from under the table and twist and turn like ugly thoughts.

The only interruption to the rush of events is the Porter's scene in which Stephen Noonan daringly addresses the audience directly, persuading some into knock-knock games and launching into a Tony Blair impression. No doubt Shakespeare's clowns were given leave to improvise, so this is all within the theatrical tradition, but examiners might be a bit surprised at modern references - a theatre critic was condemned to hell on the press night.

Heather Neill Tickets: 020 7928 6363

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