The litmus test for a production of Macbeth is Act II Scene IV. It should be deeply disturbing. An unknown old man talks to the Thane of Ross about how unglued everything has become since the head of state was wantonly murdered in his own bed in the dead of night. And we audience members, who know just what has happened, should pick up the dark, fearful, terrifying sense of unease. It is a grey, cold morning and nothing and no one is safe. Well, it serves several purposes, dramatically – gives a sense that time has passed between Acts II and III, introduces the fact that Macduff and Ross are kinsmen – but most of all, it ties Macbeth’s crimes to a generally chaotic environment.
I suppose this is, to some extent, Shakespeare being a commercial playwright – simultaneously gauging the mood of the crowd after a change in monarchs and flattering the new king with a portrait of a suffering Scotland ready for his ancestors to take power and restore order. But the portrait of a man’s descent into evil, the grimly detailed context, and the breathtaking poetry that supports both transcend such topical footnotes.
The Argo recording is disappointing in that it fails to convey the present horror of the time. Tony Church and Irene Worth, two of the stronger actors in the series, despite readings highly sensitive to the poetry of each scene, don’t provide the nightmare. The blunt finality of Worth’s triumphant air at the news of Duncan’s coming under her power hits the wrong note, somehow. She and Church have no chemistry and barely seem to be acting together. And Church himself plays each scene to perfection but provides no unifying characterization that carries us along with him into his terrifying descent.
On the plus side, there’s Derek Jacobi as Ross. An undergraduate barely out of his teens (he may still be 19, in fact, depending on when in 1958 the recording sessions occurred), he gives a remarkably skilled performance, allowing fear to descend at odd moments, punctuating his delivery with waves of emotion. Amateur actor Roger Prior is an excellent Malcolm, worn down by suspicion and the nature of the tricks he must play to stay alive in exile. Gary Watson is full of icy contempt as Lennox, and Michael Bates provides an excellent comic turn as the Porter.
Best of all are the three sisters, however, my new favorites in audio Macbeths. They consist of an older woman, who speaks with an eerie, stoic calm, and two younger women who are driven into an ecstatic frenzy by their revels.
Macbeth with Tony Church, Irene Worth, John Barton, Gerald Mosbach, Roger Prior, Freda Dowie and Michael Bates.