6 OCTOBER 2007, Page 46

Dynamic duo

Lloyd Evans Macbeth Gielgud Rhinoceros Royal Court Life After Scandal Hampstead If you can, get to Macbeth. Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood have set a benchmark that will remain for years. Never mind impersonating the murderous couple, these two look like the genuine article. Consider Stewart. That sly and lordly head, those inscrutable little eyes, the smirking menace, the sudden changes of temper. A king, easily, or a killer of kings. And Kate Fleetwood is the most terrifying Lady Macbeth I've ever seen. Imagine Lauren Bacall with the eyes of a cobra. There's a coldness and cruelty about her so palpable that it seems an aspect of her nature, not of her art. And the sexual chemistry between them, the slow hungry greed of their embraces, suggests a violent eroticism. Rupert Goold's direction at first seems deeply conventional, perhaps even cliched. We're in a 1940s military dictatorship with everyone in khaki, tin hats and riding boots. But there are touches that carry the production into fresh imaginative territory, not least the decision to open the play in an operating theatre where the masked nurses are suddenly and brilliantly transformed into the witches. At times Goold's 'interpretation' is too close to one's awareness. In the banqueting scene Macbeth indulges in unscripted bullying. He laughs crazily, does camp voices, crushes a cigarette into the hair of one terrified courtier. Superfluous. The play doesn't need to be Goodfellas to be good. Before the Ghost appears the walls swim with spots of video-generated blood — a perfunctory gesture. Then the Murderer tells Macbeth of Banquo's death and the Ghost enters, leaps on to the table and marches accusingly straight towards him Blackout. Interval.

The second half opens a few minutes earlier in the scene. This time Macbeth's talk with the Murderer is done in mime and the stage is silent except for the tense, horrible rattling of cutlery. When the Ghost enters no actor appears so this time we're watching Macbeth reacting to what appears to be nothing. This double layering is clever and unsettling but it comes at a cost — a lack of clarity, an excess of artifice — which ultimately damages the scene. Goold clearly wants to film Macbeth and there are longish chunks towards the close where superimposed video images and a loud, busy soundtrack obscure the action. These are minor problems though and the show's core, the Stewart/Fleetwood pairing, remains thrillingly memorable.

At the Royal Court there's a revival of Ionesco's daft 1955 play about paranormal rhinoceroses colonising a provincial town. Benedict Cumberbatch, one of the most attractive stage personalities to have emerged recently, is dependably charming in the lead role. And the brave, unlucky Jasper Britton disrobes and capers about pretending to be a rhinoceros. Despite energetic direction the play is weightless and irrelevant. We've had Blackadder, Python and the Goons since 1955 and comedy rhinos don't speak to us any more. They bellow. And we don't care.

Robin Soans is a fine and a most unusual actor. He's got a job. A proper one. He writes documentary plays and his latest, Life After Scandal, is an unmissable treat. Celebs who've survived a tabloid lynching unfold their inner secrets in a chic nightclub setting. The brilliance of the concept is that it slakes one's thirst for gossip while presenting itself as a lamentation rather than a sadistic indulgence so one's schadenfreude comes guilt-free. Toffs and Tories feature prominently. Tim Preece is sweetly heroic as Edward Montagu, a peer convicted of a minor sexual offence in the 1950s Philip Bretherton gently pillories Jonathan Aitken making the chastened sage come across as a pompous self-advertiser. Describing himself as a 'bruised pilgrim', Aitken seems to triumph in his guilt and in his power to redeem himself. But pride in one's abjection is not a virtue but a sin. Major Charles Ingram, who coughed his way to a fortune on Millionaire, has a wonderful turn of phrase. 'They're always pleased to see you,' he says of his pets, 'after a run, with some snivelling shit coughing at you, trying spit in your face ... you come in and get a friendly slurp from the dog.' His deepest regret is losing his job in the army. 'It wasn't just that it was the dentistry.' Neil and Christine Hamilton are nicely done by Caroline Quentin and Michael Mears. She amiably bossy, he creepily louche. Having beaten off a swarm of scandals they've bought an 'Up Yours' house on the proceeds. Charming, witty and tough as nails they seem not only honest but also somehow incorruptible. If they carry on like this they'll end up being buried in Westminster Abbey.