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      26.01.2005 02:05
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      The Almeida is a small theatre in Islington. Rather like the Donmar in Covent Garden, it has an excellent reputation and regularly attracts big name actors. The downside is that, because it's small, and so beloved of the chattering classes, it can be fearsomely difficult to get tickets.

      The theatre's on Upper Street, a long road in Islington, full of hateful bars and cretins. It's ten minutes walk from either Angel (Northern Line, Bank branch) or Highbury & Islington (Victoria Line, Silverlink). There are also lots of buses you can get (the 30 is the only one I can remember off the top of my head), which are much better value and nicer than Tubes, even with the shocking 20p price rise.

      The current production is Macbeth. This is the fourth Macbeth I've seen (the fifth if you include Polanski's disappointing film version), and on the whole probably the best. The weird thing about Macbeth is that no one ever seems to get it quite right. I think because it's so well known directors feel that they have to try and make it interesting in novel ways, which is silly really, as the play is perfectly capable of standing up on its own terms.

      Anyway, I'd hope that the story is well enough known not to need lengthy exposition here. (And if you haven't read it I wouldn't go and see it - Shakespeare's plays should be seen, but if you don't know them already they can be a bit daunting, and you probably won't enjoy them as much. Oh, and there are spoilers ahead, but that shouldn't matter.) Basically it's the story of Macbeth, who murders the king of Scotland and takes his place, and then finds that he has to kill more and more people in order to keep his throne secure. And there are witches in it. It's a tragedy, so don't go along expecting dancing, custard pies or a happy ending.

      It's a funny old play, Macbeth. While it's lumped together with Shakespeare's greatest tragedies (Othello, Hamlet, Lear) it has some serious flaws. The main problem is that it's only really got one character. Macbeth dominates to a ridiculous degree. Lady Macbeth gets some great scenes, but is absent for most of the second half. Other characters are just used as plot devices without any significant development. (Macduff probably has the most stage time after Macbeth, but he doesn't do much except be virtuous, grief-stricken and vengeful, and Banquo, Duncan etc. come off even worse. The one exception is Malcolm, the dead king's son, who has probably the most eccentric and worst scene in any major Shakespeare play, where he spends ten minutes persuading Macduff that he's really depraved and evil, only to suddenly change his mind and say he isn't. Quite why he feels the need to do this isn't explained.) But whatever its faults, it does have some incredible writing in it. The 'Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow' speech is probably the most extraordinarily beautiful expression of nihilistic despair that exists in English.

      This production, directed by John Caird, is very good in some ways, and slightly unsatisfying in others. Because of the smallness of the stage the play is a lot more intimate than usual. It's quieter and more drawn out (while most Macbeths are usually done in under two hours without interval, this one clocks up an impressive three hours, with interval). The uncanny and downright sinister atmosphere is brought out very well through minimalist staging and some imaginative lighting (there's no set, just a slightly occult-looking circle in which most of the action takes place). The sound effects are superb, quiet but just loud enough to be heard, and nicely eerie. There are lots of effective little touches - the extremely stylised 'cry of women' that accompanies Lady Macbeth's death, for instance. This is 'director's Shakespeare' all the way (where the director's interpretation of the play is at least as important as the play itself), but it works well, for the most part.

      There are a few problems, though. Some are Shakespeare's fault (the porter scene is always a bugger to pull off, and Malcolm's appalling scene with Macduff makes no more sense in this production than it does in any other). But some aspects could certainly have been improved. The weird sisters are nowhere near weird enough, and the decision to have them speak their chants as if they were normal dialogue was a mistake (you can't say 'double double toil and trouble' as if it was just any old line of dialogue and have it sound impressive - try it at home, you'll see I'm right). The other main problem is that the two on-stage murders don't quite work. Because of the quietness and morbid introspection of the rest of the play, the actual violence seems really out of place and, in the case of Lady Macduff and her kiddies, is actually faintly ridiculous. But as I said, I've never seen an entirely satisfactory Macbeth, and this is a pretty good one as they go.

      Macbeth is played by Simon Russell Beale. One of the most consistently impressive actors of his generation, he's been doing quality work for the RSC and National Theatre for the last 15 years or so. Like Anthony Sher or Alan Howard, he's mostly stuck to stage work, so isn't a household name like Branagh or McKellan. He is superb - I've seen him in loads of plays, and this is one of the very best he's done. He starts out low-key - I was initially quite disappointed - but his performance builds gradually to the point where suddenly you're hanging on his every word. He plays a very self-consciously intellectual Macbeth, a character who explores the meaning of his lines even as he speaks them, and who has to teach himself to become a bloodthirsty tyrant. He brought out meanings in the verse that I'd never considered before, and while not convincing as a man of action (he's too portly, for one thing), it's certainly the best Shakespearean performance I've seen for some time.

      The rest of the cast don't have much to work with, and while no one's bad, few people stand out. Emma Fielding as Lady Macbeth is very good, and this is the first time I've actually believed in the Macbeths' relationship. William Gaunt is great as Duncan, using his few scenes to make the character pompous, sarcastic and downright unlikeable. And Tom Burke is also good as Malcolm, making the most of the most thankless part in the play.

      The stage, as I said, is pretty small. The only major fault with the Almeida compared to, say, the Donmar or the Young Vic, is that not all the seats have brilliant views of the stage. I'm a cheap seats kind of guy, and while my own view was fine, one of my friends had a pillar to contend with. The seats themselves are very tall (my feet only just touched the floor), with practically no leg room, but there was a convenient foot rest (this was in the circle, I suspect that the more expensive stalls seats are more comfortable). The Almeida, recently refurbished, has a bar in the main lobby (I didn't use it), and programmes were on sale (I didn't buy one). There's also a restaurant attached, but I'd imagine that's a bit on the pricy side, and probably only does pretentious food. Our tickets were a very reasonable £12, but the prices go up to £27.50. Macbeth is one until March 5th. It might be pretty tricky to get tickets for it now, but if you can then I'd recommend it (assuming you like Shakespeare, of course). In a city that's spoiled for choice, theatre-wise, the Almeida is one of the best, and I hope I go again soon.

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