Yellow leaf

Theatre - Anthony Bond on how age is more of a threat to Macbeth than Burnham Wood

Hotfoot from appearing in Noel Coward's Song at Twilight in the West End, Corin Redgrave has taken the title role in a new production of Macbeth at the Battersea Arts Centre in south London. In casting the 60-year-old Redgrave as the warrior-king generally thought to be in his 30s, the director, Tom Morris, who is also artistic director of the BAC, signals from the first his intention to make the age of the characters a key feature of his production.

For if Redgrave's Macbeth is losing his hair, the thanes seem so world-weary that they'd like nothing better than to retire to their castles as soon as the weather improves. In opposition to the ageing noblemen are those "not yet of woman known", as Malcolm coyly has it, most of whom look about 12 and are "lily-livered" and "cream-faced" to boot, nervously and awkwardly shifting around the periphery of the stage.

The director, as he explains in the programme, has detected parallels for the play in modern war-torn Bosnia, where a generation of men has been decimated by internecine feuding. The play opens with a stage strewn with the corpses of young men, and it ends with one. "Your son . . . has a paid a soldier's debt: He only lived but till he was a man," laments the noble Ross.

The concept seems to transpose nicely for the plot: if the only rivals are adolescents or soon-to-be pensioners, the way is clear for a challenge; and if Macbeth is 60, he must take his chance when offered, for it's unlikely there will be another. Towards the end of the play, Macbeth laments that his life has turned to "yellow leaf" - in this production, it is a lament for old age rather than an untimely end.

Whether in reality medieval Scotland was so ravaged might be questioned, and certain lines embarrass the 60-year-old ("I have began to plant thee and will make thee full of growing," Duncan assures him). A cynic might query which came first in the project - Redgrave, West End star, long-term loyal supporter of the BAC and resident of Battersea; or the idea that attempts to justify casting him. And yet the real problem with Morris's concept is the additional strain it must place on any leading actor.

Macbeth, whatever else he must be, is steely. His courage is manifest. Here is someone who is not only a great warrior, capable of inspiring men to victory after victory, but who, though by nature "too full of the milk of human kindness", is able to murder in cold blood and to stick to the outcome willy-nilly. His strength is not in resisting temptation, but in resisting grace - he has the stature of a saint in reverse, a fallen angel, and is terrible and magnificent in equal measure.

With his saggy face and fair, immobile, perfectly coiffured hair, Corin Redgrave cuts a rather mild-mannered, even cosy figure. Indeed, the glint in his eye seems, at this point in his career, more Val Doonican than all-conquering warlord. Kenneth Tynan once famously compared Sir Ralph Richardson's portrayal of Macbeth to the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz. Redgrave is no buffoon, but he is undoubtedly miscast.

Together, Morris and Redgrave have produced a Macbeth of gentle, assured maturity and reserve who descends to gibbering and twitching before a final bout of all but senile dementia. If we could peek at the swirling passions and the moral universe below, and see the stature of the man who falls into the farce of his kingship, they might have got away with it - indeed, it could have been brilliant. But Redgrave is not up to it. His performance is technically faultless, full of clever subtle touches and asides, but he is no Macbeth.

It doesn't help that there's no chemistry in his relationship with Amanda Harris, who plays Lady Macbeth. She seems a little too butch at first - it's difficult to be "unsexed" if you didn't have much sex to start with - but she gets better as the play progresses.

Still, there are some fine moments. Creeping Burnham Wood moves with breathtaking slowness upstage towards Macbeth before running through him and past him, Macbeth unable to affect the irresistible tide of events which is engulfing him - "They have tied me to stake, I cannot fly."

The setting is intriguing. The adolescent royalties are dressed as if they might be found lolling around the lido in Visconti's Death in Venice, all pale cream jackets and slacks; the soldiers are mostly in modern stage soldier wear - greatcoats, boots and braces - but with armour. The witches seem to have been left out at Greenham Common too long - very grubby, but there's not much "hovering" or "midnight" about them. They have a good final scene in a blackout, though, where the children's voices of the conjured apparitions serve to introduce the first really chilling note.

Despite its faults, this is a brave experiment. Redgrave, remembering his childhood in a recent interview, recalled how his father, Sir Michael Redgrave, taught him to sleepwalk convincingly on stage. It is a dangerous remark to offer the critics. But it is more fitting, perhaps, to praise the man for his courage in attempting to turn back the clock, than to criticise him for failing to bring it off.

Macbeth is at the Battersea Arts Centre (020-7223 2223) until 16 April

Anthony Bond's reviews have appeared in the Literary Review and the Catholic Herald. He works at BBC Production