A Sleek ‘Macbeth’ Sacrifices Clarity for Innovation
Witches be cooking.
In the 1600s, King James I of England blamed everything, including his mother’s death, on witchcraft. So he commissioned Shakespeare and Co. to put up a smear campaign against witches, the Bard answered the call by premiering The Tragedie of Macbeth for their main benefactor, the King himself, in 1606. Theater was back in business after the plague that put the citizens under an extended quarantine, during which the Bard had written not only the Scottish play but also Anthony and Cleopatra, as well as King Lear – “I learned to use the instapot”, says Michael Patrick Thornton ruefully, as he starts the performance by providing the play’s historical context to the audience.
It’s 2022, and Macbeth is bringing up bouts of deja vu across four centuries, as theater returns after yet another period of arrest as Covid-19 and civil uncertainty tear through the world.
Again, witches be cooking – this time they’re dressed in cardigans rather than cloaks, lounging in their open concept kitchen, listening to a (possibly true crime) podcast while stirring the pot as wafts of fragrance from the caramelizing onion descend into the audience – it’s an experience for all the senses from the moment you step into the theatre.
Bubbling inside the cauldron saucepan, however, is more than just stock vegetables, and the fragrance isn’t enough to cover the stench of blood and Gunpowder Plot (Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators’ failed attempt to blow up the Parliament and assassinate King James was alluded to in Macbeth as a source of inspiration). This play is certainly not for the faint of heart.
Unfolding in an almost bare stage, Sam Gold’s Macbeth, which tells the tale of an ambitious Scottish general (Daniel Craig) who following three witches’ prophecy that he will become king, sets on a path of violence, tyranny, and ultimate demise. Gold’s production returns to the play’s Elizabethan roots of fluidity and simplicity, with actors slipping in and out of multiple roles and having direct relationships with audience members. Nothing’s ever hidden on the expansive stage, yet with clever tricks of shadow and light, everything is also constantly half-veiled, hidden in plain sight with a convenient puff of smoke.
The company members deliver iambic pentameter in a tone that’s staunchly contemporary (and in their respective native accents, Craig British, Ruth Negga as Lady Macbeth Irish, and the rest American) and when they’re not actively in the scene, they also provide effects support with handheld smoke machines, flashlights, etc., even some foley.
Negga is a revelation as Lady M; with a maniacal resolve, she’s the undeniable center of attention whenever on stage – I’ll be thinking about her work in a mesmerizing sequence of handwashing (during the famous “Out, damned spot!” moment) for years to come (in which I recognize Sam Pinkleton’s choreography). Craig is at his best in scenes with Negga, easing into an increasingly unhinged tyrant, haunted by guilt but unable to resist the temptation of power.
Amber Grey’s Banquo (another general who fought alongside Macbeth) is a refreshing and energized take on a potentially monotonous character: still honorable, still honest, but also bursting with layers of vulnerability and playfulness. There’s also Thornton’s unassuming cheekiness as Lennox (a nobleman), or just as a storyteller in general: I never thought operating an electric knife sharpener could be such a comedic moment in the middle of a Shakespearean tragedy.
Another standout in an impossibly stellar cast is Grantham Coleman who gives a heart-wrenching portrayal as MacDuff (a fellow Scottish Lord, Thane of Fife), his grief erupts from a quiet intensity when Ross brings words of the murder of his wife and children. “I must also feel it as a man,” he responds as his tears flow when Malcolm (Asia Kate Dillon, former King Duncan’s heir) asks him to “dispute it like a man” by taking revenge upon Macbeth.
On a technical level, Christine Jones’ set is deceivingly simple yet full of hidden mechanisms that reveal themselves to be sources of magic. Mikaal Sulaiman’s soundscape is hauntingly unnerving in the best way, and at times provides startling emotional punctuation. Gaelynn Lea’s gorgeous score also further enriches the aural texture of the production. Suttirat Larlarb’s costume design felt a bit hit or miss: there are the show-stopping stunners that Lady M dons, but there are also missed opportunities with generic pieces that make it confusing to know when actors have switched into different roles. Being already familiar with the play, I was able to follow the plot, but audience members who might not know it could struggle to mark the switch.
The result of this approach of ensemble works and practical effects is an anachronistic marvel. This is a production filled to the brim with downtown experimental theatre sensibility, however, with the resources and the technical capacity of a Broadway production, it was able to achieve a level of incomparable sleekness.
While I was mesmerized by the storytelling conventions and performances, I also can’t help but question some of the choices in the production. Having seen Macbeth in everything from period-perfect unabridged versions to Alan Cumming’s one-man tour-de-force, to interpretive dance adaptations, I find this production exhilarating. But it’s not the best introduction to the play for someone who’s unfamiliar with the text, and as theatre artists, we certainly cannot sacrifice clarity for innovation.
The content of the witches’ mystery stew goes from pedestrian to a not-so-vague suggestion of cannibalism as soon as the play begins: Danny Wolohan plays the “swine” the witches have slaughtered. My brain was whirling in an attempt to decipher the potential symbolism of it – as from the same pot, the company would later share a meal. There is a frequent presence of violence and gore throughout the play, including graphic depictions of body mutilation, though presented in a way that’s almost clinical.
But the witches do get to serve what they’ve been cooking before the curtain falls and the company seems to understand what’s in the stew. It all comes down to it, doesn’t it? Blaming the witches for cooking up a plot, for planting the seed of wickedness into Macbeth’s heart. Shakespeare did his assignment well writing the play featuring a coven of supposedly evil witches for the King, but he also exquisitely laid out a map of human greed. Ideas are formed to tickle humanity’s base instinct, but to act upon it is an entirely different story. The witches never told Macbeth to kill, the choice was his to make.
“Alas, poor country, almost afraid to know itself! It cannot be called our mother, but our grave.” Ross laments about the state of Scotland to MacDuff, a line that resonates so eerily in the present. The selfish desire of a few often results in mass graves.
I wonder if Shakespeare had typed out his verses during the quarantine of 2020 instead of 1603, whom would he have alluded to with the murderous King and his treacherous wife? Whose greed is the tumor that needs to be rooted out so that thousands more can live again?
Still, witches be cooking.
And this tale “told by an idiot”, signifies a whole lot indeed.
Content Warning: violence, gore, occasional intense lighting, and sound effects.
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