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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Saturday 23rd November 2002

Macbeth / Michael Moore: Live! / Falling

The Spectator - 23rd November 2002

There was a telling moment during the press night of Macbeth when the actor Julian Glover, an RSC veteran, suddenly dropped his broad Scottish accent and spoke in his own mellifluous voice. The line in question was: "Anon, Anon! I pray you remember the Porter." It was as if he was speaking directly to the critics and saying, "I know this is probably the worst Macbeth you've ever seen, but don't blame me. I only work here."

This is the first Shakespearean production I've come across in which the male lead is the weakest member of the cast, but then it's not every day that a heartthrob of Sean Bean's stature agrees to play such a demanding role. You may recall Sean Bean as Richard Sharpe in the television series based on the novels of Bernard Cornwell--and if you don't his Macbeth will surely refresh your memory. With his thick, Yorkshire accent, he's more like a beleaguered NCO than a victorious Scottish General, and he has Sharpe's habit of removing his shirt at every opportunity. As my companion, the playwright Tim Fountain, said: "It's like watching Geoffrey Boycott do Shakespeare."

At other times, you may be reminded of Sean Bean's portrayal of Andy McNabb in Bravo Two Zero since Edward Hall, the director, has chosen to stage this Macbeth like one of those hackneyed BBC docudramas about the SAS. Towards the end, as the confrontation between the two armies grows near, we see four soldiers in modern dress prowling across the darkened stage, their Maglites cutting through the dry ice as they brandish their Heckler & Koch submachine guns. You half expect them to start shouting "incoming" and "fire in the hole".

I feel bad about panning this production since I'm all for making Shakespeare more accessible. But it reeks of cynical commercialism. You get the impression that no stone has been left unturned in an effort to transform this difficult play into a sure-fire hit. A star has been cast in the lead; the actress who plays Moneypenny (Samantha Bond) has been cast as Lady Macbeth; and the three witches look less like old hags than members of the all-girl band on Pop Stars: The Rivals. It wouldn't be so bad if these showbiz stunts were designed to emphasise a particular interpretation of the play. But there's no evidence that Edward Hall has thought about it at all. As far as I could tell, his only concern is to avoid making any demands of those young women in the audience--and I'm sure there'll be plenty--who've paid £39.59 to see Sean Bean without his shirt on.

One performer I wouldn't want to see with his shirt off is Michael Moore, the leftwing American rabble-rouser who's currently appearing at the Roundhouse. Judging from his size and shape, Moore's sympathy for the workingman extends to his diet of Big Macs and Coca-Cola. In all other respects, though, his attempt to pass himself off as a powerless outsider tilting at the Establishment is totally unconvincing. His stint at the Roundhouse coincides with the simultaneous release of his book, Stupid White Men, which has been at the top of the New York Times bestseller list for 34 weeks, and his film, Bowling For Columbine, which is the highest-grossing documentary in America since...well, since Roger and Me, Michael Moore's indictment of General Motors. Far from being the scourge of corporate America, Michael Moore is a one-man corporation. He's the Burger King of the protest movement.

None of this would matter very much if he'd taken the trouble to prepare a show. But Michael Moore: Live! is the biggest rip off since Starbucks started charging £2.35 for a cappuccino. On the night I saw it, he ambled on stage and launched into a long, rambling monologue about the firefighters' strike. This was followed by a bit in which he tried to get a number for the Office of Homeland Security from directory assistance in Washington and was put on hold for five minutes. While he was waiting for the number he just sat there staring into space, seemingly unconcerned that the audience had paid good money to be entertained. It was almost as if someone had wandered in off the street and was just extemporising on the spot. He had, perhaps, 15-minutes worth of material, yet the show went on for over two hours. I don't think I've ever seen a performer display such contempt for an audience. Compared to Michael Moore, the way General Motors treat their customers is a model of corporate responsibility.

Falling, a new play at the Bush by Shelley Silas, isn't terrible, it just fails to ignite. It's about a middle-aged man and woman who are having trouble conceiving. A sexually precocious 16-year-old then enters the picture and propositions the man. Will he sleep with her or won't he? For the purposes of bringing this play to life, the man needs to misbehave, but for some reason he doesn't. Shelley Silas is one of the writers-in-residence at the Bush and she clearly has talent, but she hasn't grasped that the essence of good drama is conflict. The characters in this play all end up getting on famously. Falling is like an episode of Cold Feet that goes on for too long. She should rewrite it, turn the man into a sexual predator and cast John Leslie in the part. Then she'd have a play on her hands.

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