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.

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