Playhouse, March 1


The production is wandering along slightly aimlessly when Jessica Tovey’s Lady Macbeth receives her husband’s note relaying the witches’ prophecies. Reading it, she instantly grips us and draws us in, casting a spell infinitely stronger than the witches, themselves. No, it doesn’t last, but that’s the nature of this Macbeth: moments of triumph intermingled with moments best forgot.

Hazem Shammas and Jessica Tovey. Photos: Brett Boardman.

The play begins auspiciously enough, the moody music, lighting and the ensemble’s slow-motion movement suggesting clear, thoughtful artistry. But then the witches speak, and the mood is trashed along with the verse. They convey no sense of otherness, merely mouthing their lines as if reciting a laundry list, and so the initial good work is undone.

The most concise of Shakespeare’s plays and perhaps the most doom-laden work of art ever conceived, Macbeth isn’t easy. Bell Shakespeare’s artistic director Peter Evans has had Anna Tregloan design costumes that locate the play around 1920, just after World War I, while her set is framed by green velour drapes. The specificity of the era and the sensual elegance of the curtains immediately takes us far from any sense of the play’s core: a brooding abyss devoid of time, place, heaven or hell.

Jessica Tovey. Photos: Brett Boardman.

Macbeth can succeed in broadest daylight, without a wisp of dry ice or the usual pervasive gloom, and this one has the head start of Max Lyandvert’s striking music and Damien Cooper’s lighting. Furthermore, Evans has judiciously cut the text to eliminate recapitulations of the plot, and so it bolts along, the interval arriving while you’re still adjusting to the tone and feel.

Much of that tone and feel rest squarely on the shoulders of Hazen Shammas as Macbeth. His interpretation is quite unlike any other: an almost vaudevillian version that emphasises the character’s often-lost humour (however black), while being variously petulant and unhinged. Had Richard III taken up acting rather than throne-stealing, his Macbeth might have come out something like this, with all these exaggeratedly stretched vowels.

It is an interpretation that, like the production as a whole, is uneven. Shammas is at his best in Act V, when crazed and remote, and, like the soldier he was before he was a king and mass-murderer, furiously oscillating between fear and bravery. What he does not quite catch is the frenzied imagination which fuels so many of the phantasmagorical soliloquies. This doesn’t mean they’re thrown away, but they don’t always impale you the way they should. “Is this a dagger…”, for instance is too big and externalised, with little sense of the crashing tectonic plates within his brain. And yet he’s utterly compelling near the end when imparting “I have almost forgot the taste of fears…” and when receiving the news of his wife’s death.

Tovey and Shammas. Photos: Brett Boardman.

A particular strength of his performance is the chemistry with Tovey: you are not left wondering about their passion, which partially ignites the madcap plan of regicide, thereby opening the floodgates on a tide of blood. Tovey’s desperately sad “Out, damned spot…” speech provides the crucial heartbreak that somehow goes missing in the murder of Lady Macduff and *in the news of it reaching the latter’s husband.

Among the rest James Lugton stands out, firstly with his Duncan, and then by making the comedy of the Porter – “Knock, knock” – as full as a bladder. Julia Billington and Jeremi Campese are convincing as Banquo and Malcolm, respectively, and Evans’ direction of the ensemble scenes is a consistent highlight that, alas, outshines most of the delivery of the verse.

Until April 2.