Macbeth is the latest Shakespeare tragedy to reach the Crucible's main stage. However, unlike its predecessors Hamlet and Othello, it doesn't have a huge name attached to one of the lead roles - other than Shakespeare himself, of course. What, then, might be the big draw of this production of one of the Bard's most well-known works?
Well, arguably, the key draw is that the play departs from the theatre's usual thrust stage and is performed in the round. Complemented by a stage encompassed by a large stone circle (and later, containing a round table), this an immersive experience, which works particularly well in the feast scene and in the scenes with the witches, where the stage is used to full effect. Indeed, the innovative and exciting feast scene is worth the ticket price alone. The play also emphasises the darkness and superstition of the text very effectively.
However, this is very much a play of two halves. The final scene of Act One and the whole second half are engaging, fast-paced and employ some wonderful uses of lighting (courtesy of lighting designer David Plater). In Act Two, the cauldron scene in particular is hugely atmospheric, whilst the scene with Lady Macduff and her children is short but incredibly brutal and left several audience members gasping. The first half, unfortunately, up until the wonderful banquet scene, rather lacks in spectacle. The staging and lighting are not used to quite the same effect as later in the production, and there is little sense of dramatic tension regarding the storyline.
In particular, it is hard to see what dynamics director Daniel Evans, whose work at the Crucible has thus far been exceptional, was trying to achieve with the characters of Macbeth (Geoffrey Streatfield - almost unrecognisable here with his huge beard!) and Lady Macbeth (Claudie Blakley). In every scene in the early part of the play they seem to change from madness, to naiveté, to confidence, to love and back again at the flick of a switch, and the characterisation of the two feels inconsistent rather than a gradual descent into madness. Their relationship lacked the combination of sensuality and malevolence one would normally associate with these characters. At times it was also difficult to hear Blakley's lines, especially when she was shouting. Both performances were much stronger from the feast scene onwards than in the earlier part of the play, as if the two leads were more confident in who their characters were in these scenes than in those preceding them.
The supporting cast were generally good, although it wasn't always easy to discern how many different characters they were meant to be portraying (some had up to six roles), and the local teenagers who took supporting roles were excellent.
The fight and murder scenes were a curious mixture of tense and brutal and incredibly tame and unbelievable. Characters also appeared bloody later on from conflicts where we saw that no blood was shed onstage. This inconsistency might have been easier from a production point of view, and it does perhaps emphasise the importance of the psychological horror over the physical but it still seems somewhat jarring. There were also two or three occasions when serious moments caused the audience to laugh due to an overly comedic prop or effect.
Overall, then, this is perhaps a production which doesn't always live up to the courage of its convictions. It has some superb scenes which make full use of the set, lighting and performers, and other scenes which seem somewhat lacking. This is still an early stage of the run, though, and if a little attention can be given to the first half of the production to raise it to the standard of what follows, this could become something rather special.
Macbeth is at the Crucible, Sheffield until Sat 6 October.