Getting “Macbeth” Right

The New Yorker, 10 June 2014
By Hilton Als

In a way, it doesn’t really matter what anyone thinks about the current revival of “Macbeth” (at the Park Avenue Armory, directed by Rob Ashford and Kenneth Branagh), because it’s not there for our critical engagement. Rather, this British import’s real function, like the Royal Shakespeare Company’s visit a few seasons back, is to provide an occasion for the audience to buzz along on the high of “real” culture: British actors doing a very, very old British thing.

The grand, oaken-halled Armory, dedicated in 1880 and built with private funds, is a perfect locale for all that. (The venerable, bricked structure played host to the R.S.C.’s “Julius Caesar,” and “The Winter’s Tale” as well.) And so is set decorator Christopher Oram’s blasted moors. Before entering the theatre, the audience is divided into several groups, each representing an opposing Scottish clan. So doing, Ashford and Branagh want to make clear, over and over again, that the world Shakespeare created is a divided one, split between the delusion of self-perception and life as it is lived among the sacred and the profane, between the phantasmagorical and the real. The audience sits on either side of a long stretch of muddy earth that constitutes the stage proper. Monumental stones, redolent of Stonehenge, are banked on one edge of the stage, and a church altar sits on the other—primitivism and enlightenment, a muddy medieval kingdom.

In this Scottish universe, soon to be filled with emotional murk, we see, through rays of light and dark, mist and gloom, our unreal hosts: the three witches (Charlie Cameron, Laura Elsworthy, and Anjana Vasan). Standing on the stones—they seem to float out of them, like fog—we listen as they tell us that in this “foul and filthy air” they will meet again with Macbeth. Cut to Macbeth and Banquo (Jimmy Yuill); they are celebrating their victory against the allied forces of Ireland and Norway when they encounter the witches, who address Macbeth as Thane of Cawdor, but there already is a ruler — King Duncan (John Shrapnel). But not for long: Macbeth writes to Lady Macbeth (a badly cast Alex Kingston) about the witches’ prophecy, and his embittered, childless wife decides that ambition will be the couple’s legacy instead. She encourages him to kill the beloved Duncan once he’s asleep in their home in Inverness; their treachery will make Macbeth king, and not Duncan’s son, Malcolm (the attractive Alexander Vlahos).

Lady Macbeth feeds on vindictiveness. Her lover is not her intellectual equal, and Macbeth knows it. But instead of making the Macbeths’ relationship about domination and submission — which it is, with a woman calling the shots — Ashford and Branagh make it about obvious stuff, like sex. The directors could have learned a thing or two from Akira Kurosawa’s perceptive and contained “Throne of Blood,” the Japanese master’s version of “Macbeth.” Starring the redoubtable Isuzu Yamada as an exquisitely controlled and controlling lady monarch, the movie is about the visual power of power. You can’t not look at the couple, even as they live peacefully in someone else’s death.

The prolific Ashford, who directed Scarlett Johansson in the badly conceived and executed 2013 revival of Tennessee Williams’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” and who is becoming known as a “woman’s director,” has never failed to state the obvious. His scene work always lacks for subtlety because he seems to find it too intricate, and a bother. The result is often a generic busyness. To make actors do less means you have to go inside the script and call on what the actors don’t know is there, or are not conscious is there. To make Macbeth and his lady completely interesting, you have to allow for what Shakespeare doesn’t say, and what the Macbeths have restrained in their marriage not only to make it work, but to achieve their nefarious goals.

Besides, evil is almost never hysterical. Cunning takes stealth, watchfulness, and a kind of gracefulness: you attack your victims when they least expect it. Branagh doesn’t think so much as he reacts, and Lady Macbeth doesn’t hold back so much as she acts out — “acts” evil as opposed to understanding how discretion can be a kind of strength and a wellspring of revenge. Branagh himself is too old to play a boy — or boyish needs; he flails and fights and fucks because he is “lusty,” a figure out of an old M.G.M. Technicolor film about medieval times, while Kingston attends to her husband with aplomb. (The only actress on stage I’ve ever seen who gets that Lady Macbeth controls through repression was Jennifer Ehle in Moisés Kaufman’s more interesting staging at the Delacorte, in 2006.)

W. H. Auden, in his very honest 1947 essay about “Macbeth,” said that it is “difficult to say anything particularly new or revealing about” the play. And I would agree, given the lengths that many directors go to to make the piece “new,” including building sets like Oram’s. At first, the spooky and delightful weird sisters — Shakespeare’s poetry always extended beautifully to the supernatural — feel like the “new” thing here, given their arresting choreography. But pretty soon that’s dropped, and we’re in the same old “Macbeth” territory of war and conquest and all those crimes against God eventually smiting the hubris of man.

Still, Richard Coyle’s depiction of MacDuff, the lord who commits regicide at the end of the play, is original; he finds substance and emotional conflict in a role that is generally passed over in favor of all those vengeful ghosts. So doing, Coyle brings an enlivening spirit to a piece that many directors, including Ashford and Branagh, try to claim as their own by layering it with ideas about culture, about history, about marriage, which have less to do with reality than with their failure to even approach what Shakespeare was able to achieve through his imagination: dramatic truth, the freedom of the born storyteller.

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