Thou wouldst be great;
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it.
Thus Shakespeare’s Lady pithily sums up her husband, Macbeth. Maybe things would have worked out better for her if, instead aspiring to the throne of Scotland, she’d become a theater critic.
Because what she says applies equally to Macbeth the play – and pinpoints what’s missing at the Arden. Ambition it has. But what this honorable but tame production lacks is the play’s illness – that is, the passionate, terrifying grandeur that can make it so thrilling.
There are built-in challenges to presenting Macbeth in an relatively intimate space. In many ways, director Alexander Burns and his designers have found imaginative solutions. The storytelling is clear, and the stage pictures often striking. An elaborate soundscape (by James Sugg) sets the mood.
By the end, though, that soundtrack seems to have done more than its share of the heavy lifting. Ultimately, the acting – which really should be what brings size and scale to Macbeth – doesn’t pull its weight.
All of the company handles the verse with skill, and the language and meaning are clearly articulated. But only Ian Merrill Peakes as Macbeth brings life and specificity to the text. He, too, could use more grandeur – but it’s a performance rich in detail.
The rest of the cast largely choose a single affect and play it from beginning to end. Rarely do we get the sense of extremis that the words themselves suggest. When Lady commands, “unsex me here/And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full/Of direst cruelty,” we should quake in our boots. Here, she seems somewhere between bored and slightly vexed. We could be watching The Real Housewives of Aberdeen.
As I said, there are some terrific visuals, and Peakes is absolutely worth seeing. But a great Macbeth should feel like an off-the-Richter-scale earthquake.
What we have here is a tremor.