John Simm's scintillating Macbeth at Chichester Festival Theatre - review

Dervla Kirwan and John Simm. Photo by Manuel Harlan
Dervla Kirwan and John Simm. Photo by Manuel Harlan

REVIEW: Macbeth, Chichester Festival Theatre until October 26

You sense straight off that director Paul Miller’s Macbeth is going to split opinion with its non-traditional casting, its often intrusive projections and its set of witches who like nothing better than to run round and round in circles.

But stick with it – for it’s a production which eventually convinces and does so powerfully, thanks largely to a scintillating central performance from John Simm.

At times it’s a production which seems over determined to be doing something different – as if collectively we’d all said ‘Oh no, not Macbeth again!’

But in the end Simm’s brilliance in the role overcomes all the obstacles the night strews in his way.

And it is brilliance – particularly as at the start Simm seems too understated, so much so that it’s difficult quite to believe that he is the warrior he is lauded to be.

Simm in fact, though, is giving us something much more subtle, a Macbeth who only really comes alive after killing Duncan. Simm’s is a Macbeth made magnetic by murder, increasingly commanding, particularly when he so misguidedly believes he is invincible.

His response to Lady Macbeth’s death is riveting. Just a shame about the huge projection behind him on a night which variously sees clouds whizzing by, branches blown gently in the breeze and all manner of unwanted oddities.

Only when Macbeth goes back to the witches for the final time do the projections add anything at all – and then they do so chillingly.

Click here for Macbeth production photos

Opposite Simm, Dervla Kirwan is no less compelling as Lady M – and again the virtue lies in the fact that Kirwan offers us a different kind of Lady Macbeth. At first you think she is simply far too nice to be quite so evil, but Kirwan and Simm give us a couple clearly passionately in love.

The whole tale is all the more disturbing when you consider that it is that love which drives them to the evil they commit – a love which makes that evil all the more comprehensible.

Opposing them, on a night of integrated casting, Beatriz Romilly is a surprisingly impressive Malcolm, catching boyishness thrown instantly into manhood. She is superb in the scene in which she tests Macduff, a similarly impressive Michael Balogun.

His Macduff’s reaction to the murder of his entire family is heartrending in the extreme; murderers one and two are suitably and deeply sinister.

The whole thing is played out on the sparsest of sets – a decision which works well, particularly with the glass floor (on which Macbeth is smashing the glass ceiling) reflecting beautifully from certain angles.

But given that this simplicity works so well, it is a shame that an overfondness for projections distracts so comprehensively. In one scene they are brilliant, but at worst they are an annoyance, particularly when random words from a key Lady M speech are thrown up on the screen… as if we should be taking notes for our homework.

So all in all, rather like the costumes (especially the Inspector Clouseau look-alike complete with hat and moustache), it’s a hotch-potch production. Thank goodness then for the acting which shines through everything.

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