Halloween has come early to Chichester, where witches rise from under the stage as if crawling through a crack in the earth from hell itself, projected images offer twisted tree roots and spooky branches, and clouds scud eerily across the endlessly grey sky.
Alas, despite the sturdy presence of John Simm as the gnarled warrior Macbeth and Dervla Kirwan as Lady M, Paul Miller’s production is more tricksy than treat. It also touches three hours, robbing Shakespeare’s drama of the driven intensity it needs if it is going to thrill.
The video design, by Tim Reid, is a constant distraction rather than a help and there are times when it feels as if the actors are in mortal combat with it. A resolute and game Kirwan delivers her first big speech with intelligence and power, even though the final word of almost every sentence is projected behind her like a subliminal message for washing powder.
Designer Simon Daw provides a raised glass circle that occasionally opens like a gaping maw to swallow the Macbeths’ victims who sink into the boggy earth below. Daw also kits out the cast in Edwardian garb with a smattering of pork-pie hats. The witches look like refugees from a particularly chilly music festival and keep sprinting in circles as if to keep warm, although presumably the movement is intended as a form of spell-making.
It’s never a production that answers the crucial question when reviving any classic: why this play and why now? But despite the unevenness of both production and casting, there are moments to savour. The way the witches keep popping up like extras in the murder scenes is a neat touch, and the relationship between Simm and Kirwan’s murderous pair is neatly charted.
They begin as a middle-aged couple clearly still very much in love and there is an electric moment when their bloody fingers entwine after the first crime. From then on, the physical distance between them grows. It is a psychologically astute touch by Miller, reminding that the Macbeths’ happy marriage is one casualty of their vaulting ambition.
Simm has a good line in sardonic snarl, suggesting a man who has a certain amount of self-knowledge and who might have continued as a pretty good bloke but for one fatally bad decision. Kirwan’s Lady Macbeth is a hostess with the mostest behaving as if lighting candles and arranging table settings can somehow keep the horror at bay. But they are burdened with a production that too often seems intent on scuppering itself with an overkill of visuals and a paucity of relevance.