The Gratuitous Violins rating: **1/2 out of ****
Every review of Macbeth that I read mentioned the gory nature of the current Broadway production, starring Patrick Stewart as the Scottish general who kills his way to the throne. There will be blood, I was promised. New York Times critic Ben Brantley even compared its depictions of horror to a Wes Craven movie.
As regular readers of Gratuitous Violins know, I tend to be more than a tad on the squeamish side, so I approached the play with some trepidation. But it was a chance to see a great British thespian tackle Shakespeare, and director Rupert Goold's interpretation was supposed to be innovative. I figured I could always close my eyes or take off my glasses if it got to be too much.
Well, last week, at the Lyceum Theatre, I saw Macbeth, and I didn't feel the least bit squeamish. I didn't have to put my head between my knees to ward off fainting, and I only took off my glasses briefly. Don't get me wrong, what I saw was plenty, but given the buildup, I was expecting much more blood and guts. It was actually kind of disappointing.
I guess that's largely how I felt about Macbeth. While there were some things I liked, and it was pretty interesting to look at most of the time, for me this production of the Scottish play, the 45th on Broadway, doesn't quite live up to the hype.
My preparation for seeing Macbeth consisted of skimming a brief synopsis and a vague recollection of having read it in high school. I have to admit that a lot of the dialogue just went right by me. It's difficult to appreciate the characters and their motivations when you can't really understand what they're saying. And the actors' shouting their lines at times didn't help.
Still, even if I couldn't always understand what was going on, there was always plenty to look at thanks to Anthony Ward's production design. This version of Macbeth takes place in a dingy, institutional looking basement that becomes, in turn, a hospital, a kitchen, a train station, a banquet room and a battlefield. The setting is clearly Russia under Stalin, and Lorna Heavey's video projections bring the point home with newsreel footage of the Soviet army on parade.
Some of Goold's choices were interesting. I liked the eerie, rapping witches, played by Polly Frame, Sophie Hunter and Niamh McGrady. I liked the Russian songs and the startling appearance of Banquo's (Martin Turner) ghost. But Christopher Patrick Nolan as a porter who urinates into a sink? C'mon, was that really necessary or was it simply included for shock value? He pees for an awfully long time.
The staging hints at Macbeth's ruthlessness and amorality. We see him calmly making a sandwich, carefully slicing a huge loaf of brown bread, while dispatching two assassins to kill Banquo. And it was very cool to hear Stewart recite the lines I knew, like "Is this a dagger which I see before me, the handle toward my hand" as he reaches for an imaginary weapon.
I also liked having a younger Kate Fleetwood play Lady Macbeth. You can easily imagine her as Macbeth's trophy wife, egging him on to seize power and get rid of anyone in his way. Her eventual breakdown, the way she looks physically and emotionally haggard, was very effective. There's a lot of literal and figurative washing of hands to give us the sense of the inner torment that both Macbeths are going through.
But overall, I expected more from Stewart and Fleetwood. As interesting as the video projections were, they don't substitute for acting, for making us believe that Stewart's Macbeth was a Stalin-like figure. I got a sense that these were pretty evil people, that Lady Macbeth was goading her husband on. But I didn't feel the hatred and revulsion that I should have felt. I thought I'd be blown away by the monstrosity of this power-mad couple, and I wasn't. Perhaps it was my 21st-century ears resisting the 17th-century language.
The one actor I felt came closest to engaging me was Michael Feast as the nobleman Macduff. I thought he gave a powerful performance. His reaction when he learns that Macbeth has killed his wife and children was the deepest emotion that I felt all evening. You could see and feel the anguish. At that moment, the antiquated words weren't a barrier at all. For me, there were just too few moments like that.