Britain, it turns out, really was poised on the brink of toil and trouble the night that Iqbal Khan’s misbegotten production of Shakespeare’s Scottish play opened. By the next morning we’d all be waking up to the beginnings of the ongoing Brexit nightmare. Nothing in Khan’s staging could appear even remotely disturbing by comparison.
But then, even at the best of times, this feeble Macbeth would struggle to give anyone goosebumps. It’s a grisly stew of half-baked notions and erratic acting, seasoned with some curiously ill-judged humour. A broad, vigorous approach often pays off at the Globe. This, though, lacks even the courage of its convictions, remaining inert and strangely bloodless, no matter how much of the fake red stuff is sprayed about.
We begin with the Witches (four of them rather than three, for no obvious reason) making mischief with some severed body parts on the battlefield. There’s close-harmony keening, ceremonial gourds and hairy masks. A scurrying small boy bears bright-eyed witness to events. Ray Fearon’s Macbeth is virile, strongly spoken, a convincing military hero, though there’s something slightly bland and by-numbers about his performance.
But the problems arise in earnest back at the castle, when he’s reunited with Tara Fitzgerald as his wife. Dark hair rippling down to her waist, and with cheekbones that could slice cheese, Fitzgerald looks marvellous, like a fairytale villainess by way of Disney – a murderous Maleficent. Yet she’s entirely without presence or clarity of intention. Her delivery of the text is so underpowered as to be intermittently inaudible, and so offhand you’d almost think she’d been sedated. There’s some ham-fisted, feverish groping and gasping that fails to persuade us of any real erotic charge between her and Fearon, and she treats Duncan’s slaughter more like a minor domestic crisis than a cataclysmic crime.
Frankly, the king’s dispatch can only be a relief to the rest of us, since Sam Cox plays Duncan in such an absurdly stilted, overblown fashion. And there are many more errors of judgment. The banquet scene, in which Banquo’s ghost rolls about on the floor under a sheet, is faintly ludicrous. Even the horrific slaying of Macduff’s family doesn’t hit the right pitch of horror. And the Porter’s speech, delivered by a lubricious Nadia Albina with a knowing wink and ripped, trailing fishnet stockings, is crammed with clumsy, interpolated attempts at topical humour, including references to Donald Trump and the Tube. At least there, though, laughs aren’t misplaced – they’re an absolute nonsense in the England scene between Macduff and Malcolm. Freddie Stewart’s Malcolm makes his false confession of greed and lust, and Macduff (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), far from being alarmed or appalled, instead chuckles, “We have willing dames enough” and casts a roving eye over the females among the groundlings. Tonally, it’s wildly inappropriate, and it’s cringe-inducingly unfunny.
As for the little boy we glimpsed at the start, he hangs about, hitching a ride on Lady Macbeth’s back, tugging at Macbeth’s cloak and, finally, perching triumphantly on the throne, an impish little usurper. The kid would seem to be a prophetic illusion like the dagger Macbeth sees in his mind’s eye, a harbinger of further dynastic conflict to come and of future claims to the crown. Perhaps he’s also a ghostly echo of a child that the Macbeths have lost. It’s neither clear nor especially illuminating – just one of many quirks in a largely chill- and thrill-free evening.