CIRCUMSPECT: That is the word the comes to mind to describe Michael Blackmore's National Theatre production of "Macbeth." It picks its way through the text with scrupulous care, avoids the cliches that cling to most productions like barnacles and boasts intelligent performances from Anthony Hopkins and Diana Rigg. But the thrust and pulse of great tragedy is fatally missing.
Blakemore's chief innovation is to have set the play in a sophisticated Renaissance world full of ruffs and glitter rather than the usual primitive shaggy-haired Scotland suffering a permanent blackout. Time and again one also notches up plus points for the production; the treatment of the Witches as credible old women, who even use a book for casting their spells, instead of the customary withered panto crones; the portrayal of Duncan as a sumptuous sun-king whose assassination is for once a matter of moment; and the suggestion that Lady Macbeth is well-versed in Satanic practice by her instance inversion of the cross round her neck as she invokes the power of darkness.
Yet, for all its care and realism, the production overlooks a central feature of the play; that it deals with the overthrow of order and harmony not merely in the hero, but in society as a whole. Indeed watching Macbeth's courtiers tucking into a five-course banquet served with unobtrusive efficiency one might be forgiven for frivolously thinking Scotland had grown in comfort under the new regime; and for once the scene in England seems not like a welcome respite from an atmosphere of appressive tyranny, but a continuation of a mood of sunny calm.
Within these limits, Anthony Hopkins gives a good performance. He over does the sforzando (the sudden shout in a calm passage) and suggests less Irving's great famished wolf than an aggressive Welsh terrier. But the performance is full of excellent detail such as the gleam in his eye at the Witches' predictions which tells us that they are merely affirming his own thoughts, and the look of blatant envy he casts at Duncan's crimson apparel. It is a well thought-out performance one can imagine growing in scale and grandeur as the run proceeds.
Diana Rigg's Lady Macbeth, a severe, self-sufficient figure who disintegrates into a waxy, somnambulistic doll, grotesquely patched with rougue, is also totally credible. And for once there is a Banquo, Denis Quilley, who poses a genuine threat to Macbeth.