"Stars, hide your fires. Let not light see my black and deep desires." True to the play's dark imagery, the Royal Shakespeare Company's new production of "Macbeth" is steeped in visions of the night.

Gregory Doran's direction begins almost imperceptibly with soft drumbeats, wailing sighs -- then suddenly tips us into nightmare. Scarcely pausing for breath, one scene snaps at the heels of the next, and Macbeth's journey from ambitious soldier to fate-defying king is all over in 130 minutes. There is no interval. The risk in such swiftness is loss of subtlety, but Doran directs a talented cast and the pace is varied, albeit balanced on a knife-edge. There is just enough time for Antony Sher to pause and tease every nuance from the title role. Just enough space for Harriet Walter to gorge on evil and shatter into crazy fragments as his wife. And just two scenes in brilliant light to finally pierce the gloom of night.

The tragedy of "Macbeth" is four centuries old, but describing this as a modern dress version is misleading. True, Macbeth and Banquo make a powerful entrance as battle-scarred soldiers in berets and boots. But there is no attempt to tie the play to contemporary events, and the result is a clear focus on its timeless themes. The time is both now and always. The dimension is a living nightmare where to think of murder is to find a dagger in one's hand, dripping with blood that will never wash away.