You don’t have to share the delight in prophecy of “Macbeth’s” three witches to guess that Simon Russell Beale at some point would have a go at Macbeth, as befits an astonishing talent who defied expectation four and a half years ago to become a singularly soulful Hamlet. What no one could have foreseen is that this actor, paired once again with his “Hamlet” director, John Caird, would prevail over a slow, self-infatuated, only sporadically revealing Almeida Theater “Macbeth” that all but dissipates the propulsive energy of this famously tricky play.
Russell Beale is too intelligent a presence not to ignite the occasional scene, and his verse-speaking, as ever, is a wonder on its own lucidly thought-through terms. There’s nothing wrong in principal with a meditative, contemplative Macbeth whose anguished self-reckoning is on view for all to see; it’s less easy, however, to excuse a solipsistic production (the second of three separate “Macbeths” in London this winter) apparently so busy weighing every moment that it all but forgets to invite in the audience.
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The staging’s methodology is clear from the outset, as Macbeth comes onstage and silently faces the audience while the chalk-faced witches do their Cassandra-like thing. Before Macbeth has spoken a single word, Russell Beale cuts a deliberately hesitant, unsure figure, his butchery the product not so much of a fevered mind as of one moving toward a sort of Beckettian blankness that will ultimately lay waste to an evildoer whose entire life has passed in a daze.
The star’s take on the part is both original and considered, and it reaps most of its benefits early on, as Macbeth is confronted with more than he can properly fathom until even the begetter of so much bloodshed must eventually snap.
Intriguingly, in his scenes opposite Emma Fielding’s almost painfully pinched Lady Macbeth (the actress’s muscles seem fairly to be popping), Russell Beale hints at a Macbeth who might be a better murderer if he weren’t quite so slow on the uptake. Only the most intelligent of performers can convey a nearly fatal dimness, as Russell Beale’s Macbeth at times does here, especially as paired with a scarily intense spouse who wants action not “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” but now.
After a while, however, the deliberate pacing (Caird manages the dubious feat of stretching this most distilled, compact of tragedies to nearly three hours) begins to pall, bringing with it the feeling of a company in thrall to its leading player rather than working in concert with him.
Fielding is a terrific actress, and she lands the bitter comedy to be had from a partner who can’t withstand her other half’s erratic ways. But for all Russell Beale’s transformative ability to confound his own physique, he hardly squares with the “rugged” figure spoken of by an increasingly petulant wife. Her own fall, in this version, would seem to have as much to do with merely losing her cool as it does with succumbing to “life’s fitful fever” well before her too-weak husband.
After a while, it becomes impossible to get beyond the disconnect between Russell Beale’s embrace of the play’s metaphysics (“To be thus is nothing,” he says, throwing open his arms as if to let in the void) and the prosaic nature of the production.
The tragedy unfolds on a circular playing space by designer Christopher Oram, whose burnished backdrop finds visual echoes of his (far more terrifying) “Caligula” in 2003. For all this production’s unusual alertness to the sounds of the text — the knocking of the porter (played by a sweet-faced John Rogan) or the hoarse cries of the often-cited raven — Caird hasn’t animated from within a play that demands a more infernal response than copious stage hocus-pocus.
Among the supporting cast, Silas Carson impresses as a poster-boy Banquo, who frequently appears with various shirt buttons undone for no reason beyond the obvious. But the rest blend into the twilit wash of Neil Austin’s lighting, with the exception of Sara Powell’s Lady Macduff, who comes at us rabid with grief, her maternal outpourings at pregnant odds with the barren Macbeths.
It is on a note of psychic barrenness, in fact, where Russell Beale comes to rest. Rarely has Macbeth’s eleventh-hour query “canst thou not minister to a mind diseas’d” sounded more rhetorical (or, in this actor’s delivery of it, more beautiful) than it does coming from a tyrant who has bowed out mentally well before he does physically. And as this Macbeth, prior to dying, emits one final devil-may-care laugh, you are left admiring the mechanics of a scrupulous case study where the play’s murderous cauldron of sound and fury once was.