Sam Gold’s eccentric, iconoclastic productions of William Shakespeare’s tragedies Othello, Hamlet and King Lear are nothing compared to his over-the-top staging of Macbeth which has now opened at Broadway’s Longacre Theatre. Although he has chosen two international stars, Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga, as his leads he seems more interested in his modern trappings and distracting stage effects than characterizations for the Scottish soldier and his wife who plot to become king and queen after eliminating the current ruler. With a cast of 13, the production needs actors to double and triple in order to cover all the roles. Even if you have read the play and know it well, you will have trouble following it.
Like Gold’s revival of The Glass Menagerie, the play seems to be set at a rehearsal: when the audience comes into the theater, the cast is milling around the stage in contemporary clothing, gravitating toward a food table on stage right. Actors not in scenes often sit against the back wall or mill around in the wings as though inexplicably watching when they are not needed on stage. The final scene has all of the actors (with the exception of Asia Kate Dillon as Malcolm declaiming the play’s last speech) seated on the floor near the footlights and eating soup out of bowls like an after-theater snack. Initially the stage is empty when the play starts (except for the food table which remains onstage up until the final battle sequence) but Christine Jones’ set design requires a long metal folding table in brown and two raspberry colored armchairs to be carried on stage for Macbeth and his wife. The back wall of the stage is visible with many, many pipes, a distracting view, and then at the end of the play in the fifth act when Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Castle, fulfilling a prophecy, the wall turns out to be a prop and moves forward almost to the footlights.
The play begins with a prologue from actor Michael Patrick Thornton about King James’ obsession with witches in England and that Shakespeare wrote the play for him in 1606. However, Suttirat Larlarb’s costumes which include tee shirts and chinos only suggest today. (Incidentally, would a soldier on the battlefield wear a white tee shirt to fight in as does Craig’s Macbeth?) The script which has been trimmed a bit (with characters like King Duncan’s younger son Donalbain excised altogether) makes things happen too fast while the lack of transitions between scenes causes one to segue into the other without closure. Without scenery and without costumes to represent the various groups, it is difficult to know where we are at any given moment. In fact, with all of the actors except Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Malcolm and Macduff doubling and tripling, it is impossible to always know who is who in a particular scene.
After the first exchange by the three witches, the actor playing the Captain (Danny Wolohan) is hung upside down and his throat slit so that King Duncan’s first line can be “What bloody man is this?” which is supposed to refer to his gashes on the battlefield. Among the distracting stage business are Macbeth’s grabbing a lite beer to drink as does the Porter in a later scene, the murder of King Duncan (in a fat suit) by Macbeth reenacted to what sounds like shrieks from Hitchcock’s Psycho, a scene not in the play, (original music by Gaelynn Lea, sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman), then Duncan gets up from his death bed, strips off his fat suit, crawls out from under the lowered curtain and plays the Porter in his underwear, ad libbing as he goes along.
As king and queen, Macbeth and his wife sit at breakfast at the ends of the long table, a tableau taken from Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. Shades of Roman Polanski’s film version, where Macbeth visits the witches at the beginning of the fourth act, there are nine of them, not the original three. Before the banquet scene, we watch Lady Macbeth and her servant lay a brown table cloth and napkins rather than listen to the lines. The banquet of all the nobles has only four guests which makes for a very deficient feast. Actors carry spotlights in many scenes (lighting design by Jane Cox), encounters to which their characters should not be privy. Because of the doubling and tripling, actors also appear as characters who should not be anywhere in scenes they find themselves.
And what of the acting? All the soliloquies are presented addressed directly to the audience with the actors standing center stage, not suggesting our hearing their inner thoughts but that they are curiously confiding in us. Daniel Craig who is now most famous as an action hero appears uncomfortable as the conflicted soldier who later becomes king of Scotland. He speaks in spurts which breaks up the poetry of the lines but does not resemble contemporary spoken speech. His salt and pepper hair makes him look older than most Macbeths usually are.
Although the relationship between Macbeth and his wife is famously sexual, after she uses her feminine wiles on him to convince him to kill the king in order to take his place, there is little or no chemistry between him and Ruth Negga as his spouse. Her performance seems too low key for the surroundings and her most famous line, “Out, damn spot,” in the sleepwalking scene, is addressed to the floor instead of the blood she imagines see she sees on her hands. While Craig was an excellent Iago in Gold’s contemporary version of Othello in 2016, and Negga was acclaimed for her performance as Hamlet in both 2018 and 2020, neither of them seem to have found their way into these new roles.
As King Duncan in a fat suit, Paul Lazar is a comic figure while his later Porter uses a few too many gestures to explain his jokes. Asia Kate Dillon in purple hair as King Duncan’s son and heir is negligible, while Che Ayende (subbing for the usual Grantham Coleman) is quite forceful though his fight with Craig in the penultimate scene (violence director: David S. Leong) is not believable. Amber Gray is a vigorous and jaunty Banquo, Macbeth’s comrade-in-arms, but switching the gender of this character does not add anything to the play. However, Gray’s reappearing later as Lady Macbeth’s Gentlewoman in the same costume as Banquo is completely confusing, as is the smoke coming out of her neck in her appearance as Banquo’s ghost in the banquet scene.
Although Maria Dizzia is a fine actress, seeing her reappear as one of the Witches, Lady Macduff and Lady Macbeth’s Doctor is quite startling. Michael Patrick Thornton appears in so many roles that one gives up trying to figure out who he is at any moment. As the three witches, Philip James Brannon, Bobbi Mackenzie and Dizzia are too low-key to make much impression. However, their witches seem more bloodthirsty than ever.
This 2022 Macbeth appears to be entirely a director’s project, but Sam Gold has done his actors no service with the busy activity he has added to the play. Fine actors like Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga who have demonstrated their top-flight acting chops on stage elsewhere have not been aided by the bizarre direction. Ironically, Shakespeare’s name is nowhere to be seen in the ads for the production. If this was to rope in the fans of Craig’s James Bond, this production gives them no help in following the play, a story of ambition and revenge, which should have been the point of the updating. Even if you are well-versed in the play, you will find yourself adrift much of the time.
Macbeth (March 29 – July 10, 2022)
Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th Street, on Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.macbethbroadway.com
Running time: two hours and 25 minutes including one intermission