Two of London’s most recent productions of Macbeth have one thing in common – actors who on the face of it are entirely unsuited to the role. In March 2018, Rory Kinnear, in whose hand you can more easily imagine a latte than a longsword, was less than convincing as Shakespeare’s thane.
And now comes Paul Ready, an actor with the cerebral air of a diffident academic. Granted, in the hit TV series Bodyguard, Ready’s civil servant is up for carrying out an assassination. But only the kind that kills careers. If he saw a dagger before him he’d probably prick his finger. And yet this Macbeth, performed in the Globe’s indoor, candle-lit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, is the best I have seen.
Robert Hastie’s production is tricksy, but in a very good way. At the outset, actors draw straws to decide who plays the witches. On press night Michelle Terry was one, adding yet to her list of connections to this production – as the Globe’s artistic director, as Lady Macbeth and as the wife of Ready too.
Unlike many Lady Macbeths before her, Terry opts against a femme fatale portrayal. And perhaps not only because it would be as alien to Terry as a Rambo-like Macbeth would be to Ready, but because as important as charisma is for any actor playing this role, the key to her performance is not to upstage this production’s strength – that when the cosy glow of several candelabra diminishes to the flicker of a single flame, the sense is that we are sitting in the blackening recesses of a man’s darkening mind.
Take, for instance, the moment when Macbeth hesitates to murder the king. Granted, his wife’s response is still pretty emasculating as Lady Macbeth calls into question her husband’s manhood. But what drives her husband’s actions is neither her ambition, nor his, but rather the irresistible logic of how he – a favoured though minor courtier – might yet become king even if it means killing his way to the crown.
Thanks to the grotesque shadows thrown onto the walls by the candlelight, this is as spooky a production as you will see. Yet the magic is often found in the margins of the stage where characters sit as still as furniture and like ghosts – in full view yet unseen by everyone on stage and off until the play calls them into action.
The evening hurtles along at the speed of a Hitchcock thriller. Yet there is always time for introspection. Once such is, for me, the dramatic pause of 2018 when Macbeth finally understands the meaning of the witches’ riddle that promises Macbeth will never be killed by a man “woman born.”
In the presence of the caesarian-born Macduff, Macbeth realises that the prophecy was not a guarantee of his survival after all, but a prophecy of his death, and it is here that Ready’s Macbeth hangs his head in wry recognition at the limits of his own imagination. Priceless.