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Macbeth (A Theater Review)


Starring Ruth Negga, Daniel Craig, Maria Dizzia, Amber Gray, Danny Wolohan, Michael Patrick Thornton, Asia Kate Dillon, Che Ayende, Danny Wolohan, Amber Gray, Emeka Guindo, Paul Lazar, Maria Dizzia, Grantham Coleman, Bobbi MacKenzie and Phillip James Brannon.

Written by William Shakespeare.

Directed by Sam Gold.

Playing at Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St., New York, NY, 212-541-8457. Duration: 2 hours 20 minutes. Closing Date: July 10, 2022

With Stars Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga, Macbeth Makes A Return to The Broadway Stage For Better or Worse

Not being any kind of Shakespearean expert — or even your basic Bard-ite — I wasn't sure what to expect of director Sam Gold's version of Macbeth. Certainly, he had his share of accolades and supporters for earlier interpretations of the legendary scribe's other plays.

A Tony winner for Fun Home, Gold has directed some of the most high-profile recent William Shakespeare productions in New York. On Broadway his King Lear, won accolades for Glenda Jackson. There was also his earlier Hamlet, starring Oscar Isaac, and an Othello which featured former 007 Daniel Craig in the role of Iago. Craig must have had fun since he came back to work for Gold again.

So as I anticipated seeing this production, I saw an opportunity to reevaluate the legendary playwright once again. In particular – Macbeth being one of his seminal, serious tragedies — I'd seek to understand Shakespeare's view of passion, power, and its corruptions. Drawing on Greek tragic dramas, the story looks at the dynamics of aristocratic minds and how its upper-class members often view their worlds differently than those who operate according to more traditional moralities.

Believed to have been first performed in 1606, Macbeth (full title: The Tragedie of Macbeth) dramatizes the damaging physical and psychological effects of political ambition on those who seek power. Of all his plays written during James I's reign, Macbeth most clearly reflected Shakespeare's relationship with King James, the playwright's acting company patron.

This tragedy in five acts was written sometime in 1606–07 and published in the First Folio of 1623 from a playbook or a transcript of one. Some portions of the original text are corrupted or missing from the published edition. It's the shortest tragedy in the canon and its relative brevity among Shakespeare's tragedies comes without diversions or subplots.

As the tale goes, Scottish general Macbeth comes across a trio of witches who predict that he will be King. Consumed by ambition and spurred by his ambitiously scheming wife to act, Macbeth murders King Duncan, ascending to the throne. Wracked with guilt and paranoia he then murders others to protect himself. But because of enmity and suspicion, he soon becomes tyrannical. A bloodbath and civil war ensue, driving Macbeth and his Lady into the realms of madness and death.

Shakespeare's source for the story is the account of Macbeth, King of Scotland along with Macduff and Duncan in Holinshed's Chronicles (1587), a history of England, Scotland, and Ireland familiar to Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Although the events in the play differ from the real Macbeth's history, the tragedy is further associated with the execution of Henry Garnet for complicity in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

Over the years, this famous play has attracted some of the most renowned actors to the roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. The so-called "Scottish Play" has been adapted to film, television, opera, novels, comics, and other media.

It chronicles Macbeth seizing of power and subsequent destruction, his rise and his fall the result of blind ambition. Did I get it? Not quite. All the usual visual cues in the costumes and staging weren't there since Gold subverted the normal expectations of how this Macbeth should be experienced. Instead, he puts the cast in plain, simple, modern outfits and uses austere, minimal staging to underscore his take on Macbeth. This approach made the play harder to understand and made me care little for this production. Maybe I should have read the original before seeing this production, but I got lost in the jumble.

Nor did this version make me appreciate the language. Instead, at times I found myself wondering if everyone in the cast was in the same play that I was seeing and hearing.

Both Craig and Ruth Negga did their best to capture the seesaw relationship between Lord and Lady Macbeth, one of the more logical marriages in Shakespeare's catalog. The two feed off each other, both feeling at home in their marital cocoon. Of all the dynamics in Gold's production, the actors get their interplay better than anyone else does.

While there's electricity in Negga's and Craig's performances together, individually they fumble. Negga's mad scene seems sketchy at best. Craig's solo speeches feel like an emotional roller coaster where the brakes work only intermittently.

Like his earlier effort, Gold's Macbeth is both over thought and under designed, full of half-executed ideas and uneven performances. Actors try to play their characters as if they were all in the same version of Macbeth, but the director can't seem to have them inhabit the same world with all his shifting imagery.

How do I ascertain whether a retelling of a classic Shakespearean drama can inform me about this modern world? That's hard enough for any piece of art even more so when a production veers so far from the usual expectations.

The event starts out with Michael Patrick Thornton delivering a routine about the play's parallel to our time, with its genesis during a pandemic. In turn, that observation leads into exposition that jumps between King Duncan (Paul Lazar) receiving news of the battle and the witches (Bobbi MacKenzie, Maria Dizzia, and Phillip James Brannon) who are nothing like what we expect of the witches. They make a brew for Macbeth, Duncan's loyal associate. They predict that he will become Thane of Cawdor and then King. And that his companion, Banquo (Amber Gray), will begat Kings — and in Gold's production that includes shifting gender expectations. Soon after, Lord and Lady Macbeth begin their plotting ways to speed the prophecy along with expectations of power and glory.

Actors watch the proceedings from the exposed wings. Performers create the "fog and filthy air" with handheld fog machines, employed as though they're in a Catholic mass. The costumes the actors wear could have come from their own closets, or maybe even worse than what they have at home. Craig is the exception, donning special garments scene by scene: a smoking jacket, a paisley housecoat, and a full-length fur but to what purpose? That was unclear.

The final confrontation between Macbeth and Macduff (Grantham Coleman) is meant to be a blowout bash but it comes off looking like a street brawl outside a sleazy bar. Despite an effort put in by the two, one can easily imagine them slugging it out more convincingly in a better production. As for the rest of the cast — half the time, I don't think they knew what to give to their performances since they often didn't seem to be in the same play as everyone else.

I left this Macbeth in a fog of confusion. From beginning to end, it featured actors doing things that in an ordinary play, set in modern times, would make sense within a clear, discernible narrative.

Macbeth is meant to be bigger than that. And yet, this version not only obscured "The Scottish Play," it seemed as though it were set in some other world altogether. Certainly not mine.

Brad Balfour

Copyright ©2022 All rights reserved. Posted: June 2, 2022.


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