Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Guthrie Theater's Macbeth, A Review.

I saw the Guthrie Theater's production of Macbeth this weekend. It's a great play, and the production played it straight--no attempt to particularly modernize the play, although the costumes were strongly flavored from WWII. The play started fast, and kept going without an intermission for about two hours.

HOWEVER. (There is always a "however," isn't there?) I found myself thinking critically about the production itself, ejected from the story and into some choices about the play.

It starts with a bang. Literally. Warfare rolls across the stage as characters in battle fatigues rappel down from the ceiling and storm across the stage. There is handgun fire and hand to hand knife fights. Bodies fall and roll, lie for a time, then inobtrusively remove themselves from the stage. It could be distracting, but it's effective overall, as if the battle has moved to new ground, and the bodies were left behind. Macbeth is identifiable--even before he's been introduced by name--standing tall in the center of the fighting, his red beard marking him as Scots. Okay, technically, the witches came out first, but the sudden fury of the battle blots out their previous scene.

The problem is that the production never slows down again. Everything happens at breakneck speed, and at top volume. The wounded soldier stumbles on to tell King Duncan that Macbeth and Banquo have defeated both the Irish AND the Norwegians, but his speech about their bravery goes by in a blur, making them seem not like victorious generals, but like manic berserkers who have prevailed out of sheer love of bloody fighting. Which is precisely the image of Macbeth which is most undercutting to his role as a tragic hero. If he's a wildman who happens to be a useful weapon on the battlefield, then he's not a tragic hero--there is no arc to his story. If he likes to kill men on the battlefield, and then he starts killing men from his own side, then he a psychopath who goes mad, not a good man who struggles with bad choices and actions.

The witches are back, wearing grey raincoats and dreadlocks. Weird, sure, but not overtly supernatural. They predict Macbeth's future--thane of Cawdor and king hereafter, and the scene plays with so much skepticism from Macbeth and Banquo that they might as well have broken open some fortune cookies. "Ha ha," they poke each other, "what a bunch of crazy bitches these are. You're going to be king, what can they possibly say to me that would top that?" They don't seem to entertain even the flimsiest of notions that these witches might be telling the truth--because that would take time, soemthing this production doesn't have. A few seconds of doubt, or puzzlement would have made their belief in these predictions believable. But who takes fortune cookies seriously, or alters their behavior because of what they say.

So when messengers arrive seconds later to report that Macbeth is now thane of Cawdor, the audience is prepared for Macbeth to say something like "Wow. What a coincidence. I wonder if those witches had heard this messenger talking before he got here?" We are not prepared for him to gobble up Cawdor without chewing it and immediately look for the kingship. One of the enduring puzzles of the play is the question of the inevitability of the future. Would Macbeth be king even if he had never heard the witches' prediction? Or does the fact that they tell him he will be king change the way Macbeth acts? Is he a good man brought down by his susceptibility to ambition, or was he doomed by fate?

Hard to tell it's even a question in this production: Macbeth seems to take the witches' pronouncements as a To Do list and he has to check off all the items efficiently. Cawdor? Check. What's next on the list? King? Better write to my wife and get her on board.

Let's talk about Lady Macbeth, shall we? Mad shrew, frustarated SAHM, or violent sociopath? Rarely is she portrayed as a complicated human being, and why break that precedent here, right? Dressed in a white shirt and trousers, she's writhing on the couch with excitement at the idea of being queen, already her volume is turned up to 9. Where can she go from here?

I've seen the actress who plays Lady Macbeth in at least two other productions, and I've never warmed to her. She's incredibly good at sweeping onto and off of the stage, but doesn't really do much once she is there. She has a habit of emphasizing her words with a hand gesture: an upside down claw, as if she is gripping an orange underhanded. With her fingers splayed, she makes short, quick motions at waist height again and again. Her voice drips with contempt for Macbeth and even when he agrees to kill Duncan, her attitude doesn't change. At this point, Macbeth doesn't seem to feel he has any choice either: Killing Duncan is on his To Do list.

I could go on in tedious detail, but this is the problem that pervades the play. Macbeth never really acts as though he had any choice in the matter, so he just plans to go through the motions. Lady Macbeth starts out bloodthirsty, and even when she goes mad, there's no sense that she was ever anything but a monster, so why should be pity her?

The best example of what I am talking about is in Mulholland Drive, David Lynch's freaky detective movie. In a pair of scenes, Naomi Watts plays a character who is auditioning for a role in a movie. At home, she runs over her lines with her roommate, shrieking in cliched high-school-drama fashion "I hate you! I hate you!" A few scenes later, she's in the audition, and suddenly she is acting. The actor she is reading with is an old lech, using the scene to grab her ass. She grabs his arm, moves closer to him, and whispers in his face "I hate you." And man is it effective! Instead of a soap opera of shallow and inflated emotions, we see a woman poisoned by hate and self-loathing. It is a Master Class on how underplaying a role makes it incredibly powerful.

Macbeth could have used some of this underplaying. The most effective scene in the whole play was at the banquet, when Banquo's ghost appears. The actor playing Banquo appeared, his head and neck covered with stage blood, and he just looked at Macbeth. There was never a threatening gesture, never a moment of posturing. Instead, Banquo looked saddened that Macbeth should have killed him. And Macbeth loses it in a major way. In fact, the physical interaction between the two actors was so good, that Shakespeare's dialogue was unnecessary and unduly comic. Macbeth comes to himself and tries to apologize, claiming " I have a strange infirmity, which is nothing / To those that know me." One can only laugh, as this is soooo far from explaining Macbeth's weird behavior. . .and here it is that the scope of his madness is apparent, because he can't even behave normally or give anything like a credible explanation for his behavior. So he doesn't even try. And THAT is madness--when you give up attempting to explain yourself.

There were a few things that intruded on my enjoyment of the play, things that popped up into my mind like those goofy VH1 videos. Two of the characters, Ross and Lennox, were advisors to the king, and were the only two men who were never in military garb. They wore suits, and fedoras, and topcoats, and leather shoes, and one carried an attache case--because he was an attache, duh. But all I could see, as he hauled that briefcase around, was "the results of Oscar voting were tabulated by the accountants of Price Waterhouse."

Similarly, the actor who played Malcolm, King Duncan's son and the leader of the troops who finally defeat Macbeth, was played by an actor I had last seen in "The Importance of Being Earnest," which totally undercut the force of his lines. Duncan dead, Malcolm and his brother Donalbain realize that they are not safe either, so they plan to flee to England and Ireland respectively. However, I can't help but see this as an instance of "Bunburying"--Oscar Wilde's plot device where the character gets out of town by claiming he has a ailing friend in the country who wants to see him.

Similarly, when Macduff and Malcolm meet in England--the play signals their location by having them in leisure wear, drinking tea(!)--the scene just smacks of a set-up to a Wildean pun-off, and I had to keep reminding myself to "listen to the words, don't watch the body language!"

Oddly, this is the first time I have ever actually seen Macbeth performed, and I can't even claim I have read the entire play either. However, I'm not going to let a lack of academic grounding get in the way of my having very definite opinions about how this play SHOULD be staged. I'm glad I saw it, but I can't really recommend it.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

What a Lovely Start to the Weekend

Captain Sweetie has been travelling quite a bit lately, and flew home today from a quick trip to Boston. When he arrived home this evening, he brought a dozen red roses.

"Do you know why I brought home a dozen red roses?" he asked.

"Noooo. Why did you bring home a dozen red roses?" I had some guesses, but I can't say I really knew.

"Because today is the 29th anniversary of our first date."

Which is why Capt. Sweetie is a keeper.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Bright Star, A Review

Or, as I think about it, "Bright Star: It's not you, it's me."

I wanted to love this. Everybody else seems to--just check out its 83% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, or Dana Stevens' video review over on Slate. Or the disappointment that it didn't get more attention from the Oscars, only a "kiss your sister" nomination for costume design.

But, I just didn't love it.

I will take full responsibility for that--it's clearly my problem, not the movie's. I just don't thrill to poetry. It's some faulty wiring in my English major literary obsessive-compulsive make-up, I think. So when Abby Cornish and Ben Whishaw trade lines of Keats, I get bored. There are plenty of reviewers who find that scene to be "sexy as hell." I keep thinking that I'm damn glad I didn't live back then, because I'm finding on-line solitaire to be more engaging that this movie.

The plot, for those of you who aren't already enormous Keats fans, is pretty simple. In 1818 or so, John Keats shares rooms with another poet in the village of Hampstead; then it was a rural village, now it has been swallowed by London and is a station on the Northern Line. He meets the 18 year old Frances "Fanny" Brawne, they fall in love, he writes poems, gets tuberculosis and dies, The End. The movie covers a period of about a year, from their first meeting to Keats' death in Rome.

So, Fanny Brawne is a seamstress, who is voluably vain about her stitching skills.

The only triple-pleated mushroom collar in two counties.

When we first see her, she is wearing some ridiculous get-up yellow and red, that stands out like a McDonald's billboard in the earth tones of her village surroundings. Admittedly, I have a problem with the fashions of the era, since the men's trousers reach up to their nipples and tend to look like they are designed to create permanent wedgies, while women's gowns look like pleated maternity sacks, topped with extreme bolero jacket/shrugs. Both genders are also be-hatted with the most exaggerated of millinery.

The Carrie Bradshaw of 1819

So Fanny, being passionate about fashion, manages to make these silly looks even sillier. Abby Cornish manages to wear these monstrosities with a straight face, so good for her. But really, after seeing her in the perfectly silly get-up of the opening scenes, I found it hard to take her the least bit seriously.

Ben Whishaw plays John Keats with a pathetic excuse for a moustache and a bit of a Beatles mop: his straggling facial hair makes Orlando Bloom look positively hirsute.

Leading men who don't yet shave.

So, I'm failing to clasp this movie to my bosom and declare us "Best Friends Forevah!" My bad.

Keats shares rooms with a Scottish poet named Charles Brown, and Brown and Fanny don't get along well at all. In fact, in a modern movie, their snappy dialogue would totally mark them as the fated lovers. They certainly have similar sartorial styles; Brown insists on wearing tight plaid pants and waistcoats, with a vulgar pattern that would make even Pat Field look away. Alas, it soon turns out that the war of wit between Fanny and Brown is the indication that they truly do not like each other. But Keats loves them both, and they both love Keats, which makes them mortal enemies.

I'm a real man, with a real beard. Sadly, you can't see the sartorial splendor of my tartan pants. I guess the Scotch don't have decent dress sense.

The movie is beautiful, with lovely visuals of Keats lying on the top branches of an apple tree in bloom, or Fanny reading a letter in a field of bluebells.

John Keats, seeking a nightingale nest on a dare.

Fanny Brawne, in a rare moment of paying attention to her sister.

Everyone is against the two of them coming together: Brown fears that Keats will be too distracted to write poetry, and Fanny's family aware that Keats is too poor to marry. But like the willful and Romantic souls they are, they hold hands, and sneak away to kiss in the grass.

Did non-engaged couples in the early 1800s snog this much? They never do in Austen novels. Fanny fails to endear herself to me as a character as she drags her younger brother and sister around Hampstead to places they are not supposed to be, just so Fanny can spend time with Keats. She even takes them to the rooms where Keats' younger brother is dying of tuberculosis. Her little sister asks to leave because "it smells bad." All I could think was that Fanny shouldn't be exposing her siblings to potentially fatal illnesses, and it would all end badly if little "Toots" Brawne died of TB as well.

Poor Toots Brawne: all this time passes and she never gets any bigger. Poor nutrition, I guess, and being generally neglected.

Later, when Keats and Brown go off for the summer to write, Fanny is short-tempered and nasty to her little sister, and ends up spending days in bed when Keats' letters don't come often enough for her. When she receives only a short letter from him, Fanny sends poor little Toots to the kitchen. "Fanny sent me to ask for a knife." "What does she want a knife for?" "To kill herself."

Yes, that's right, teenagers never change, do they. No, even back in the reign of George III, they were self-centered drama queens, mooning over a boy.

When Keats starts to cough, a room full of friends we have never seen before gather and convince him he needs to travel to a warmer climate and they will pay his passage. Fanny doesn't want him to go, but he says he has no choice, what with the passage already paid for. This is where a Regency self-help book would have been useful.

So he goes, and he never comes back, because he dies in February, and Fanny cries when she finds out, and she never takes off the ring he gave her, even though she lives for many years afterwards and marries and has children of her own.

For some reason, it never drew me in. Sure, I say that I have a cold, dead heart, but I cry at movies and books all the damn time. I cried my way through the "Twilight" books, even while deploring the bad writing and the hokey set-up. I cried through "Shakespeare in Love," even though I knew it was all fake. But I just didn't believe that the mouthy, vain, mean and fashion-obsessed Fanny was really truly in love with John Keats, so much as he was her first crush. And what was there about Fanny that Keats really loved? Sure, she looked great reading letters in a bluebell field, and she let him kiss her all the time; but what was there about their characters that made them a match? They lived in two halves of a small house, they were both the right age--and that was about it.

So, I'm dying to have somebody explain to me why this is a great movie, and how I can look at it so that I love it as much as everybody else does. I'd like to like this movie better than I do. As it is, though, I just don't.

Awash in Narrative

I have apparently broken through my reader's block: I have just finished "The Little Stranger" by Sarah Waters on audio, and have started Geraldine Brooks' "The People of the Book." I am wrapping up Kelly Link's "Magic for Beginners" and simultaneously starting "Becoming Jane Eyre" ebooks, and I actually have a quaint and archaic hardcover of Kate Atkinson's "When Will There Be Good News."

Not to mention that I just finished watching the complete first season (half season?) of Glee, and Jane Campion's movie "Bright Star," which was the Netflix replacement for "Wag the Dog" which I also finished last week.

And yes, I am managing to keep them separate in my mind, thank you for asking.