nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
June 24, 2006
It takes a lot to jazz up Shakespeare these days, but Moises Kaufman, indeed, has what it takes. The director of the Public Theater's exciting new production of Macbeth in Central Park makes the Scottish Play feel fresh and alive by emphasizing thematic clarity and the play's streamlined plot and no-nonsense (at least, for Shakespeare) language. Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay Kaufman and his stellar company is that my companion had never seen Shakespeare performed live before, and she walked out of this production singing praises for both the Bard and the Public. I must say that I concur with her assessment wholeheartedly.
There are a lot of cool things about this Macbeth, starting with set designer Derek McLane's ruined 1930s manor house (the entire production is designed like an apocalyptic Brideshead Revisited). When the play's finale is played against this backdrop, the message—that what signifies the extent of war's destruction at the beginning of the play comes to stand for the damage Macbeth inflicts on himself and his country by the end of it—hits home soundly. (By the way: for anyone not familiar with the plot, there's a thorough and detailed synopsis available at Shakespeare Online.)
Then there's Kaufman and costume designer Michael Krass's genius decision to outfit the infamous Weird Sisters—played wonderfully by Lynn Cohen, Joan Macintosh, and Ching Valdes-Aran—like dead soldiers. When they appear onstage at the top of the show in whiteface and heat-bleached fatigues, mirroring Scotland's wartime devastation while clownishly mocking it, the audience immediately knows that it's in good hands.
Where Kaufman really scores, though, is with simple details. In the dagger scene, Macbeth actually sees a dagger for once! (Actually, three: the Weird Sisters each come onstage with one: he sees the knives, not them.) After Duncan's murder, every time Macbeth claims to hear a noise—whoosh!—there is a nebulous sound effect to accompany his suspicion. (Sound designers ACME Sound Partners do a bang-up job on this production.) In the Porter's scene, immediately afterwards, a spotlight picks out random audience members as the Porter (Lynn Cohen again, in a fun bit of double casting) calls out the various personages of her speech. The famous banquet scene is done well, with Banquo, visible only to Macbeth, upstage of the whole gathering while his chair remains empty at the table. This is a nice touch that emphasizes Macbeth's growing instability in the eyes of others.
What has always been, at least for me, the most problematic scene in the play—Malcolm and Macduff's war council—is brought to life here by cross-cutting it with the scene before, in which Macduff's family is slaughtered, dramatically underlining his rapid change of heart in joining forces with Malcolm.
Then there's the moment when Macbeth does, indeed, see Birnam Wood moving forward towards Dunsinane—a truly inspired moment in an already thrilling production. It must be seen to be fully appreciated, so I won't spoil it here.
And, finally, there's Macbeth's final showdown with Macduff, in which it's established from the start that Macbeth is the more skilled swordsman. Why, then, does he lose the fight? In yet another inspired move, Kaufman brings out the dead—not just those Macbeth has killed himself, but all the soldiers who have died fighting a war that did not have to happen. When faced, literally, with his own bloody handiwork, Macbeth is distracted to the point of stupor, giving Macduff an opportunity to seize victory.
As for the performances, Liev Schreiber is a blessing as Macbeth. His is not a flashy performance, just a solid, grounded one, in which he reveals a deep understanding of the role. His Macbeth is not ambitious or power-hungry—he's just a good soldier who makes a bad decision (albeit, one that triggers a domino effect from which he cannot extricate himself). Schreiber plays him as a once strong man who breaks himself. Indeed, the Thane of Cawdor shall sleep no more, as Schreiber uses Macbeth's foretold insomnia to escalate his deterioration.
He's the perfect antithesis to Jennifer Ehle's businesslike, social-climbing Lady Macbeth, who urges her husband on to bloodshed. She turns ruthlessly practical after Duncan's murder, dismissing her husband's grief as if he were an overwrought child, while Macbeth starts falling apart immediately. When he is crowned king, Macbeth looks fearful and small, while she, on the other hand, looks radiant and luminous; as if that were the moment she'd been waiting her entire life for. It isn't until her final scene, when she proclaims “What's done now cannot be undone,” that Lady Macbeth realizes the gravity of her actions. It's a moment that Ehle nails perfectly, capping a splendid performance.
I should add that what's best about Schreiber and Ehle is that they don't rush. They take their time with everything—the language, their scenes together, the play's big moments. They invest in them, make sure everything's clear, and make playing Shakespeare look like the easiest thing in the world. Inspiring.
Naysayers will, no doubt, have something snarky to say about this Macbeth (as all Shakespeare snobs usually do). Don't listen to them. Led by Kaufman's commanding direction, and Schreiber—who is one of the great Shakespeareans of our time—this production of Macbeth is Shakespeare for the people, not the critics or scholars. Just as the Bard would have wanted it, I'm sure.