After some recent West End misfires, Derek Jacobi makes a welcome return to form as Shakespeare's malevolent monarch. But director Adrian Noble's "Macbeth" is an otherwise routine affair that's going to need more than a shot of starry adrenaline to see it through its long touring life.

After some recent West End misfires, Derek Jacobi makes a welcome return to form as Shakespeare’s malevolent monarch. But director Adrian Noble’s “Macbeth” is an otherwise routine affair that’s going to need more than a shot of starry adrenaline to see it through its long touring life. (Following lengthy stints in London, Stratford and on the road in Britain, the production will embark upon a 26-week, cross-country American tour early in 1995.)

Jacobi’s musicality, while occasionally a shade actorish, at least animates the verse, which is more than can be a said for a surrounding production that strikes few discernible notes.

Arriving soon after Richard Eyre’s more adventurous yet equally problematic “Macbeth” at the National last spring, Noble’s staging makes a case — and not for the first time — for the almost hexed difficulties of Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy. (Noble had a happier go at the play in 1986, with Jonathan Pryce and Sinead Cusack.)

“Lear” aside, this is among the Bard’s spookiest, most otherworldly plays, with its emphasis on portents, potions and ghosts. And yet Noble merely canters through the text (notwithstanding a needless intermission three-fourths of the way through), letting the verse fend for itself. An occasional good idea — Cheryl Campbell’s boozy, if eventually cartoonish, Lady Macbeth literally gets drunk on her own villainy — is followed by a lot of generic stage bluster while we wait for Jacobi to surprise us once again.

That, happily, the star is content to do, from his initial appearance as a brooding, bearded figure of cerebration who will learn all too much about “action” during the course of the play. (His “I’ve lived enough,” near the end, conveys a poignant sense of exhaustion.) Shedding the camp mannerisms that have marred his recent work on the West End, he mostly avoids the empty declamation of Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet under Noble’s direction in this same theater last winter. The Jacobi on view here has more in common with his considered RSC Prospero of a decade ago than with the boulevardier Richard II and Richard III that he played on the West End in the interim.

If anything, the performance is a mite too considered, especially as self-consciously embellished by flare-ups — a bout of writhing, for example. But few contemporary classical actors come anywhere near Jacobi’s heroic timbre — Michael Siberry’s commanding, guttural Macduff suggests a possible heir — and on that front he doesn’t disappoint. Even the “tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy sounds fresh, delivered as if the final “nothing” marked less a climactic assertion than a sign of Macbeth’s reluctance to impart some more troubling truth.

As for Ian MacNeil’s odd set — a mysterious ladder here, a modern English landscape painting there — it’s difficult to know what this gifted designer means to impart beyond the fondness for dry ice we know well from “An Inspector Calls” and “Machinal.”

While he and lighting designer Alan Burrett occasionally evoke a haunted landscape out of Daphne du Maurier via Fritz Lang, MacNeil, like his director, seems to be taking random stabs at a text that Jacobi alone on this occasion pierces to the heart of at once.

Macbeth

Barbican Theater, London; 1,162 seats; T21.50 ($ 32) top

Production

A Royal Shakespeare Co. presentation, by arrangement with Duncan C. Weldon, of the play in five acts (one intermission) by William Shakespeare. Directed by Adrian Noble.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Ian MacNeil; lighting, Alan Burrett; music, David Bedford; sound, John A. Leonard; fight director, Malcolm Ranson. Opened, reviewed, Dec. 16, 1993.

Cast

Macbeth - Derek Jacobi
Lady Macbeth - Cheryl Campbell
Macduff - Michael Siberry
Duncan - Denys Hawthorne
Banquo - Christopher Ravenscroft
Ross - Adrian Lukis
Malcolm - Jason Durr
Donalbain - Jack James
Lady Macduff - Emily Richard
With: Marjorie Yates, Virginia Denham, Tracy-Ann Oberman, Alexis Daniel, Michael Jenn, Geoffrey Abbott, Michael Loughnan, Colin Starkey, Neil Caple, James Connolly, Morris Perry, Christopher Knaggs, Ben Thom, Barry Farrimond, Marco Williamson.
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