Macbeth review – John Simm excels despite much toil and trouble

Chichester Festival theatre
The murderous thane faces witches, relentless video and a musical assault in this lengthy production but emerges as a figure of rare complexity

John Simm is a fine actor and gives an intelligent, well thought out performance as the Scottish thane. Paul Miller’s production, however, does nothing to alter my conviction that this work is best played in a small space sans intermission. Macbeth should hurtle to his doom rather than, as here, being part of a three-hour spectacle.

Sight and sound tend to dominate. Simon Daw’s set comprises a circular glass floor and upstage screens on to which Tim Reid projects endless video images: scudding clouds, waving branches, eyeless spectres. Max Pappenheim’s music and sound design create a relentless aural background, featuring ominous percussion and trembling strings. One consequence is that the witches’ incantations are hard to hear and you have the sensation that the sound score is doing the work that should be left to Shakespeare’s words.

Dervla Kirwan as Lady Macbeth and John Simm at Chichester Festival theatre.
‘What beast was’t?’ Dervla Kirwan as Lady Macbeth and John Simm at Chichester Festival theatre. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Simm, however, survives this sonic onslaught in a performance that gets richer as Macbeth sinks into desperate tyranny. At first, Simm presents us with the loyal soldier who instinctively inspires trust. But surely Macbeth should suggest he has long been brooding on murder: “What beast was’t, then …?”, asks his wife, “that made you break this enterprise to me?” Once crowned king, however, Simm captures precisely the stages of Macbeth’s disintegration. There are daggers in his smiles, a pathological insecurity that propels a killing spree and, at the last, a spiritual exhaustion as he sits on his throne awaiting death. Simm is one of those rare Macbeths who becomes more complex as the play proceeds.

Dervla Kirwan gives us a soft-spoken, quietly manipulative Lady Macbeth rather than a castle-stalking gorgon and there is assured support from Michael Balogun as Macduff, Beatriz Romilly as a boyish Malcolm and Christopher Ravenscroft as a gracious Duncan. In a nice touch we see Duncan enjoying a lavish banquet while the Macbeths plot his murder. Much toil and trouble has gone into Miller’s production, but I missed the remorseless rapidity that allows us to see Macbeth’s rise and fall as a terrifyingly unbroken arc.

• At Chichester Festival theatre until 26 October.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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