Antony Sher’s eyes look poised to fall out of their sockets for much of the Royal Shakespeare Co.’s breathless new modern-dress “Macbeth,” and by the end of the evening, an appreciative audience may find itself similarly agog. There can’t be many plays performed so frequently that also fall flat with such disheartening regularity, as if the witches’ opening prophecy spoke not of Macbeth’s eventual ascension to the throne but of the unique perils of this most compressed of tragedies. (Kelsey Grammer has his own stab, you’ll forgive the word, next month on Broadway.)
But for all the external brio of Sher’s performance, the star — like the entirety of Gregory Doran’s production — animates from within a text that, for all its supernatural flourishes, starts from a far scarier place: the nefarious and not always knowable workings of humankind.
As timing, if not prophecy, would have it, this production travels to New Haven, Conn., June 15-24 to follow immediately on from Grammer’s Broadway opening, which is itself directed by former RSC supremo Terry Hands. The coincidence — call it, say, three Weird Sisters’ degrees of separation — allows for a unique compare and contrast while presumably scuppering any further commercial life for the Sher-Doran version.
If so, that much is a shame, since it’s difficult to imagine the play presented more clearly or with more force. Back in Britain this production has revived the classical theater’s ongoing “best since …” parlor game among those with longer theatrical memories than I, hailing the finest indigenous British “Macbeth” since Trevor Nunn’s RSC staging, with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench, in 1976.
The project has certainly brought out the best in Sher, a fascinating if sometimes maddening actor who can sometimes be so busy italicizing or physically adumbrating a performance that he neglects to pierce through to its inner life. No such vexations here. From his first entrance — carried in aloft aside Banquo (Ken Bones), both men punch-drunk from the glories of war — Sher weds a “Gladiator”-style machismo (anyone for Russell Crowe as Macbeth? … ) to a furtive-eyed sense of ambition allied inextricably to dread.
The play exists on the knife edge of psychosis, and it isn’t clear even early on whether Sher’s Macbeth hasn’t already succumbed. His is a monarch-to-be who falls to the ground in front of the Scottish king Duncan (Trevor Martin, ably filling in for Joseph O’Conor) as if preparing a set of push-ups. But behind the physical bravado exists a man alert to, and spooked by, every portent, sign or owl’s shriek. In this reading, Macbeth’s greatest tragedy — or so Sher suggests — is to become a ghost himself: to fall hollow-eyed prey to “the walking shadow” of one who has “supped full with horrors.”
The actor finds the perfect complement in the Lady Macbeth of Harriet Walter, an actress whose achievement is perhaps somewhat less expected than that of Sher. Walter, after all, has generally made her name occupying the posh end of the repertoire (sometimes comically so, to wit her Lady Croom in “Arcadia”). So it comes as a jolt to find Walter’s celebrated cool under deliberate siege playing the military-wife-as-society-swell whose ostensible control is more than challenged by her husband’s agitation. The distaff partner as svelte as her murderous other half is sweaty, these Macbeths are merely peering from different vantage points across a comparable abyss into which one after the other will fearfully descend.
“Macbeth” is awash in dreams and apparitions and visions, but Doran never lets this play’s otherworldly elements lead it (as so often happens) into camp. Delivering their time-honored opening in pitch-blackness, the witches lurk throughout like some kind of fretful force that simply cannot be squelched. (Check out their reappearance, the three seemingly in heat, following the banquet scene.)
Prompting his own gasp is Stephen Noonan’s take-no-prisoners Porter, who launches a brief foray into audience participation of which Dame Edna might be proud. But such a diversion represents an essential interlude to the abiding arc of the play, which is to address Macbeth’s desire for “sleep in spite of thunder” in that rare “Macbeth” that gives actor and audience alike no time to rest.