Archive for February, 2016

Macbeth, Again

Monday, February 22nd, 2016

After seeing last night’s Berkeley Rep performance of Macbeth (with Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth, yo!), it was fun to cycle back to my blog entry of 6.5 years ago, after we’d seen the show at OSF. I was reminded of how electrified I was by the OSF performance, which was useful in light of—well, of feeling not a whole lot of anything after the Rep production. (Sorry, Berkeley Rep! The run is either entirely or very nearly sold out, so . . . I doubt this review [reaching, as it will, multiple tens of people] will decrease sales.)

I think the problem was the direction, which made me notice everything that’s weird about the play, especially the pacing. For instance, why is the annoying scene between Malcolm and Macduff, where Malcolm pretends to be abjectly sinful to test Macduff’s loyalty to Scotland, so freaking interminable? Do most directors just cut it from the play? I was also surprised by how brief Lady Macbeth’s hand-washing scene is (though: nicely done, Frances McDormand) as well as Macbeth’s “tomorrow” speech. And then there’s the fact that so many very important things happen in a flash and offstage—the killing of Duncan, the death of Lady Macbeth—whereas the slaying of Macduff’s wife and children, which is admittedly horrifying and important but which you would not expect to see, given the above, is dramatized.

During the Rep production I was struck by how unjustified Lady Macbeth’s murderous ambition is. I mean, maybe this is the sort of thing where Shakespeare is writing for King James, so he can’t imply that a man who became King of Scotland (apparently for 10 years!) would have murdered his predecessors, but wasn’t that just part of Scottish history? (I suppose kings aren’t exactly known for their ability to tolerate reality.) Either way, the play gives the initial impetus to kill Duncan to Lady Macbeth, and . . . I just wasn’t buying it this time around. She gets the letter from Macbeth about the witches’ prophesy, and that’s enough to convince her to plot the murder of a beloved king?

Funnily enough, I think costuming was at issue here. In the OSF production, Lady Macbeth was dressed in a velvet crimson gown (the only spot of color in an otherwise black/gray set and costume-scape); it was as though she was already bathed in blood, and she was instantly identifiable as a site of power. The Rep chose to go full-on period piece (i.e., 1040ish), with costumes in layers of drab cotton and linen, which left Frances McDormand in an Eileen Fisher-style getup (no makeup or hair, either) that broadcast vulnerability, not power. The raw unadornment of this look also siphoned impact away from the sleepwalking scene, in which Lady Macbeth is supposed to be shockingly unraveled and exposed; in the Rep production, she looked exactly the same.

Another costuming issue: With actors playing multiple parts, the costuming should have been different enough to avoid confusion. It wasn’t—to the point where it looked as though Macduff were in the forest with the murderers when they ambushed Banquo and Fleance. Turns out it was just the Third Murderer, looking exactly (literally exactly) like Macduff.

There was some silly staging, too, where characters ran in place, toward the audience, while video of a receding forest was projected on a screen behind them. The audience had to stifle laughter. Oh, and so many cawing crows! I joked to John that Macbeth was most certainly the Thane of CAWdor.

On the other hand, great banquet scene. I’d never seen it played both for horror and for laughs, and while I was a bit worried that the director intended otherwise (i.e., just horror, no laughs), John convinced me that it was a good thing either way.

An addendum to my 2009 question re: witches: Last night I learned from a sign hanging in the bathroom that King James was obsessed with witches, to the tune of writing a book called Demonology and advocating for witch hunts. (That’s . . . not great.) So, now I have a basic answer to “Why witches?”, although it doesn’t explain their aesthetic or thematic purpose in the play.

Bottom line: I wish the director had made a host of different choices. I’d also really like to see a production that isn’t done with such obvious genre tropes but is still horrifying. Like, what if everything were extremely stylish and minimal? Maybe a Calvin Klein version?