Monday, November 25, 2013

Two Macbeths

The Manchester Theatre Festival production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth comes in at an hour and three-quarters without intermission; it moves like lightning. The show, which was broadcast worldwide in the National Theatre Live series and will make a New York appearance in the spring at the Park Avenue Armory, was staged by Kenneth Branagh and American director-choreographer Rob Ashford (who was responsible for the recent Broadway revivals of Promises, Promises and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying), and it has a glamorous duo at its center: Branagh and Alex Kingston, the English actress known to North American audiences for her work in the TV series ER. They make a charismatic couple and a sensuous one, and the setting, a deconsecrated church with an earthen floor, a candlelit altar at one end, and the audience seated in pews along two sides, tennis court style, gives the evening a rough-hewn medieval bigness and an experiential excitement even on the screen. That’s especially true in the vividly staged fight scenes (Branagh and Ashford have added the battle at the beginning of the narrative that is only reported in Shakespeare’s text) and whenever the Witches (Charlie Cameron, Laura Elsworthy and Anjana Vasan) are hovering. You can’t always make out what they’re supposed to be enacting or even what they’re saying, but they’re effective in a primal, horror-movie way, and when they appear in the smoky archways of this church or when doorways close on them so they look like they’re disappearing into the side of a building, they’re genuinely creepy. And the scene where Macbeth returns to find them to conjure emanations of his future and the future of Scotland, first oozing out from under a sheet as if they were being birthed by a monster, is close to terrifying. (Branagh and Ashford’s inspiration here seems to be David Cronenberg.)

The production, though, has no center, unless it’s the venue itself, which underscores the idea of a couple once grounded in the world of virtue who deliver themselves up to evil. Like his career-long muse, Laurence Olivier, Branagh, with his blunt, warrior-like physicality and his glorious vocal instrument, is as well suited to play Macbeth as he was for Hamlet and Henry V (and for two roles Olivier didn’t attempt, Benedick and Iago). He’s often admirable here, playing against the rhythms of the soliloquies so that the first lines keep catching us unawares and reading them with the kind of clarity that simultaneously honors the language and pierces through it. But to what, exactly? If Branagh has a distinctive take on his character, I couldn’t find it. His performance is good in pieces, like the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech, which he reads as a chart of Macbeth’s psychic disintegration, but it has no clear unifying principle, what actors call a superobjective. And from her first entrance – where Lady Macbeth reads and responds to her husband’s letter about the Witches’ prophecies and his being proclaimed Thane of Cawdor, fulfilling the first one – I hadn’t a clue what Kingston was trying for. She’s a powerful stage presence; I saw her in the entertaining Donmar Warehouse production of Schiller’s potboiler Luise Miller two and a half years ago, and when she swept up the aisle at the conclusion of her first scene, she seemed to eat up the air like flame as she passed. She’s a very physical Lady Macbeth, but all her rushing about, not to mention all of that screaming (which makes you fear for her voice), doesn’t tell us anything about the character. She pushes all her big speeches, falling into that very British trap of playing too many operatives – that is, emphasizing too many words – in the same line of text, so that your ear gets confused and your brain doesn’t know what it’s supposed to be listening to. When she gets to the sleepwalking scene, she stylizes it so radically that it’s indecipherable.

Kenneth  Branagh & Alex Kingston
Much of the acting ends up being swallowed up by too much yelling; it’s the production’s unfortunate fallback. For instance, Ray Fearon does a fine job with the moment when Macduff learns Macbeth has had his entire family slaughtered – with the great line “He has no children” after Malcolm (Alexander Vlahos) urges him to turn his sorrow into vengeance – but then he turns up the volume and the rest of the scene loses its shape. And though much of the staging is imaginative, not all of it makes sense. I liked the banquet scene where the ghost of Banquo (Jimmy Yuill) appears to Macbeth, who has just had him murdered, and the march of Malcolm’s army, camouflaged by branches from Birnam Wood. But giving us a visual of a dagger during Macbeth’s dagger speech doesn’t add anything, and placing the sleeping Duncan (John Shrapnel) on the altar where we can see Macbeth stab him – he awakes in time to see the face of his killer – sets up an expectation that we’ll also see the discovery of the body and Macbeth’s killing the drugged guards he and Lady Macbeth have framed (unconvincingly) for the murder. Of course, that’s way too complicated, so Branagh and Ashford just have the dead king and his watch get up quietly in semi-darkness and steal away while (they hope) the audience isn’t paying attention. Now there’s a notion that should have been thrown out in rehearsal. It reminded me of an outdoor Hamlet I once saw where the Gravediggers went to the trouble of digging a real grave for Ophelia, and all I could think was, Is the poor actress going to have to lie in that grave until the curtain call? Well, she didn’t; her bier was lifted off stage, so the grave was never used at all. Even worse is the Porter scene, where the character (played by Daniel Ings) reads all his lines as if he were in a music-hall sketch. It seems so obvious that the Porter scene is meant to exacerbate the suspense – Duncan’s body can’t be discovered until he answers whoever’s knocking on that goddamn door – that I’m repeatedly amazed that directors still look for new ways to make it work as “comic relief.” Macbeth is the shortest of the tragedies and the most nightmarish; Shakespeare was too theatrically savvy to dilute it with irrelevant comedy.

Ethan Hawke as Macbeth in the Lincoln Center production

The Porter scene also falls on its face in the new Macbeth at Lincoln Center; the Porter (John Glover) actually invites the audience to answer, “Who’s there?” to his “Knock, knock.” That’s as stupid a way of playing this scene as I can imagine. Would that were the worst of the show’s problems. I’ve seen worse Macbeths – but not much worse. Jack O’Brien’s production must have cost a mint: it has a cast of more than two dozen, and between Scott Pask’s abstract, ever-changing sets, Catherine Zuber’s elaborate more-or-less late-Victorian costumes, Japhy Weideman’s lighting (which suggests a German Expressionist horror movie and is easily the best thing in the show), and Jeff Sugg’s projections for the second-act episode with the conjuring Witches, there’s more than enough to fill the enormous stage of the Vivian Beaumont. But it’s horridly misconceived.

Here are just a few of its ideas. The Witches (Glover, Byron Jennings and Malcolm Gets) are men in drag who perform like they’re in a drag show much of the time, and they’re always around, sometimes slipping into other roles like the Stage Manager in Our Town. That means, for instance, that the wounded soldier (Jennings) who reports to Duncan (a distracted Richard Easton) about Macbeth’s kingdom-saving triumph in battle is still wearing his shoulder-length gray wig and pale make-up accentuating his red-rimmed eyes. O’Brien hasn’t just retained the crummy Hecate scene – probably probably written by Thomas Middleton and interpolated after the original Globe production – which no one ever performs; Hecate (Francesca Faridany) is a continual presence – and, given the size of her hair and her idiosyncratic costume, a highly visible (one might say upstaging) one – and doubles as the Gentlewoman in Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene. Well, next to Lady Macduff and Banquo’s teenage son Fleance, it’s hard to think of a character with less connection to the evil underworld than the Gentlewoman. When Lady Macbeth (Anne-Marie Duff) asks the spirits to “unsex me here,” a moment when most actresses indicate their breasts, she points to her head. At the top of the second act, the banquet table is still on stage, and the Witches are eating the remnants. The England scene, where Malcolm (Jonny Orsini) and Macduff (Daniel Sunjata) confer to discuss military plans against Macbeth (Ethan Hawke) and Macduff hears of the murders of his wife and children, is set against a lovely, impressionistic autumnal backdrop. Instead of killing the tyrant Macbeth with a sword, Macduff brains him with his shield and then throttles him. Need I go on?

Not all the terrible ideas are in the staging; a few have been supplied by the veteran (and highly talented) designers, like the stiff overskirt Duff wears over her first gown and the long, heavy train of her coronation robe, both of which hamper the fluidity of her movement, and the winding staircases in the Macbeths’ castle, which are just steep enough to make anyone who tries to rush to the top of the stairs look like a fitness buff trying out a new exercise machine.

I did like the crimson flowers in a vase center stage that die before our eyes (the palette for the production is black and blood-red, with the occasional infusion of white or, in the coronation scene, silver and gold) and the effect of having a fully stocked banquet table appear as if by magic after the evocatively underlit scene where Banquo (Brian d’Arcy James) is murdered. (As far as I know, Robin Phillips invented that trick in the Macbeth he staged at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in the late seventies, with Maggie Smith as Lady M. – though he pulled it off by having actors slide onstage in the dark holding pieces of the banquet set-up, whereas I assume O’Brien used the center-stage trap door.) And, as in the Branagh version, the conjuring scene is full of neat coups, most of them in the projections; the only bizarre item in this interlude is that the Witches put torn-up manuscript paper into the cauldron instead of creepy-crawly organs, which is like making a soup out of cookbook pages.

Ethan Hawke is an accomplished movie actor who happens to have given one of the best performances of the year in Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, but it’s hard to think of an actor – a good one, at least – who’s less equipped, physically and vocally, to play Macbeth. He has a craggy voice with little color or range, and his choice with the poetry is either to sing-song it or to rattle it off. And he lacks the grace and strength to suggest either the warrior-hero Macbeth of the opening scenes or the brutal, tyrannical monarch he turns into. Many of Hawke’s approaches to his lines are totally befuddling, like his snapping his fingers on “Blood will have blood, they say,” as if he’d just figured out the last clue in a crossword puzzle, or his shrugging response when he’s told his wife has just died. Playing opposite him in her Broadway debut, Anne-Marie Duff, who has given some of the most dazzling performances in the West End over the past decade, is victimized by the misguided direction (and, as I’ve indicated, by her costumes), so she doesn’t get the opportunity to show what she can do. The one exception is her sleepwalking scene, which is the highlight of the evening. Sunjata and James are well cast as Macduff and Banquo, and they slip through unhampered, which is more than one can say for the poor Witches. I’ve applauded Glover and Jennings in more stage plays than I can remember; they are among the most revered of New York character actors, so the blame for their utterly silly performances here can hardly be laid at their door (or at Gets’s). The ensemble as a whole looks like they’re in some low-stakes college show. Does someone really need to tell a veteran director like Jack O’Brien that you can’t get away with having the actors mime conversations in crowd scenes in a Shakespearean tragedy?.

And was it O’Brien’s idea to end the curtain call with Hawke alone on stage in a special, bowing his head solemnly as it dims out? I have trouble believing it was Hawke himself, who hardly has an egotist’s reputation, but in any case it makes him look like a diva. Considering the quality of his performance, humility might serve him better.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies

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