Macbeth review: Cauldron fails to bubble in stolidly paced Scottish play

Manuel Harlan
Manuel Harlan

Shakespeare’s most urgently propulsive tragedy is usually streamlined by directors and conducted at a murderous pace. Paul Miller’s production proceeds at a slow smoulder and never catches fire. There’s little sense of passion or shared ambition between John Simm and Dervla Kirwan that might spur the Macbeths on their killing spree to the Scottish throne, and only glimmers of feeling in the major soliloquies.

I can’t tell you if the play is uncut — I’m not that much of a nerd — but I can say there are passages spoken here that I’ve never heard in scores of previous versions. It lasts three hours: there have been shorter Lears, brisker Hamlets. The set is cumbersome, the witches gawky. Even the fights are languid. Miller runs Richmond’s Orange Tree and his staging is not without interesting ideas. It’s clear that the Macbeths have lost a child and never speak of it, foreshadowing their later inability to communicate. Macbeth’s nemeses, Banquo and Macduff, are loving fathers: Banquo’s brusque line while handing bits of armour to his son Fleance, “take thee this too”, is accompanied here by a fond kiss.

The witches reappear as minor characters throughout, shaping and guiding the action towards its grim end. Macbeth is steadily isolated on the stage while the forces ranged against him spread out into the auditorium. But these sparks flicker and die as the action plods on. Simm enters from battle as if he’s just come home from a tiresome day at the office. He speaks the verse clearly but coldly, and is briefly impressive after the murder of King Duncan, where he seems genuinely haunted, and appears to age before our eyes. Kirwan too is clear and cool, emphatic rather than emotional, though in her sleepwalking scene she shakes off the torpor and shows us a frightened woman whose mind is betraying her.

Alongside Miller’s stolid pacing, the show is dominated by Simon Daw’s design. A curving upstage screen is sometimes made translucent to reveal clever painterly tableaux: the Macbeths’ dinner table looks like the Last Supper. Mostly, though, it shows thuddingly obvious images to illustrate the action: witchy visions, roiling clouds, gouts of blood. The stage is a giant glass disc that trundles apart during two murders and one witchy coven revealing rocks below, but to no real purpose. On the plus side, Mark Doubleday’s lighting is superb at shaping mood and space. But it’s a sign that things are going badly elsewhere on stage if you notice the lighting.

Until Oct 26 (01243 781312,