The curse of Shakespeare’s most compressed tragedy surfaces once again in Edward Hall’s effects-heavy and totally empty West End “Macbeth,” which finds the watchably bluff Sean Bean scarcely the first Shakespeare near-novice (he did a long-ago Romeo for the RSC) to come a cropper in this part. It wasn’t that long ago that Rufus Sewell flailed similarly in this play’s last West End go-round, since when Antony Sher has proved the part is at least do-able given collaborators capable of piercing to the play’s black and anxious heart.
But helmer Hall, son of Sir Peter and a fine director in other circumstances (“Macbeth” marks his third West End staging this year), mistakes sound and fury as a substitute for the truly supernatural goings-on that Shakespeare locates within a mind driven by ambition and darkened by murder. This “Macbeth” is loud and clangorous — and, when necessary, lewd as well — but it’s about as bold as the initially reluctant, on this occasion always lustful king of the title.
Mindful, perhaps, of “The Lord of the Rings” co-star Bean’s broad appeal, Hall has upped the play’s sexual quotient, starting with a trio of “weird sisters” whose cavortings would earn them a place on the pages of Britain’s tabloid press. And while Macbeth and his wife (Samantha Bond) may be unequally matched in the bravery department, they clearly have no difficulties on the carnal front, jointly constituting the most sweaty and physical twosome this play has seen in ages. Determined no doubt to seal that point, Bean, who last appeared on stage some 13 years ago, spends most of the second act with his shirt off. Timidity has rarely looked so hunky.
The production’s primary insight centers around Lady Macbeth as the power player of the two: a singleminded sexpot who can say, “Leave all the rest to me” and clearly mean it. Taking none too kindly to her husband’s forebodings of woe — “if we should fail” is not a phrase she countenances lightly — Bond’s Lady Macbeth lets rip at the notion that any male in her presence could possibly be “infirm of purpose,” as if determined to scare her partner into action. And when she employs the word “unmanned,” the remark represents a death knell all its own: an alarm bell ringing too late for a bare-chested date who may not know much about usurpation but evidently has one eye toward a possible orgy.
Michael Pavelka’s physical design locates this always mysterious play in some kind of unidentified blasted landscape with vague ecclesiastical leanings, while Simon Slater’s sonorous score at times sounds as if it is about to unleash a souped-up version of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. As for the setting, it’s difficult to pin down the period of a production that utilizes swordplay one minute, machine guns the next, with weapons of mass destruction, presumably, in reserve for the sequel.
Flashes of inspiration occur: I like the suggestion at the end that Adrian Schiller’s Malcolm merely represents the substitution of one kind of tyranny for another, while Mark Bazeley’s ravaged Macduff is easily the most humane presence on the stage. Still, there’s something truly dispiriting about so hollow a staging of a play whose bizarre ad campaign shows the Macbeths strolling through what would seem to be a rural glen. The point, one assumes, is to contrast this pastoral idyll with the perplexing and cruel landscape traveled by Shakespeare, a writer who didn’t need dry ice and busy light shows to lead an emotionally bloodied audience down a none-too-verdant path.