Macbeth, Chichester Festival Theatre, review: a muted John Simm and Dervla Kirwan are outshone by the scenery

The scene-stealing video projections in Macbeth - Manuel Harlan
The scene-stealing video projections in Macbeth - Manuel Harlan

Macbeth, that brutally efficient representation of the hubris-nemesis axis, is increasingly the statement Shakespeare drama by which theatres are judged, not least because of the plum roles it offers for two actors at the peak of their careers.

The National and the RSC memorably opened competing productions within a couple of weeks of each other last year. And now Chichester presents John Simm and Dervla Kirwan, well known for their work on television (and having recently played another husband and wife in ITV’s Strangers), as the tyrannical power pair.

Both offer decent but not definitive performances, yet there is no sense of the crucial couple-chemistry that should blaze under all the best productions like a roaring Bunsen burner. We get little sense of their complicity as co-conspirators and Simm, who introduces his character as a bluff no-nonsense soldier, appears decidedly more at ease as Macbeth heads into his later, more isolated scenes.

It’s a detailed but underpowered production from director Paul Miller, with the cast dressed in loosely early 20th-century garb, rendered peculiarly bloodless in the first two acts by the fact that there is almost no shouting or raised voices. Such a weight of repressed emotion means that the feeling of a kingdom at war, with traitors in its midst, remains muted; it’s also hard to mourn Christopher Ravenscroft’s blandly beatific Duncan once he’s bumped off. Kirwan wafts through the initial letter reading scene, that fearsome statement of intent, as though she is in a Merchant Ivory film.

There’s real majesty, however, in act five, that great hurly-burly of short scenes. The gathering opposition forces memorably pop up and holler from all around Chichester’s expansive auditorium; Macbeth’s minions, drowning in bad news, reveal themselves to be the three witches, their fatal prophecies about to be fully realised. Simm spits out his fury at last.

Simon Daw’s design is striking, dominated by a large, crown-like band of spotlights that hovers ominously above the action, most of which unfolds on a circular playing area of unadorned glass, backed by a further glass screen for sepulchral video projections. Occasionally the circle splits apart to reveal otherworldly regions beneath, and it’s heartening to hear the witches go at their poetry with such gusto. It is more memorable, oddly, than anything Simm and Kirwan have to say.

Macbeth is at the Chichester Festival Theatre until October 26;