Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga in ‘Macbeth’ a Stark, Thematic Whirlwind to Chill and Confound
Intentional contradictions abound in the production of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth currently enjoying a packed house in its limited run at the Longacre Theatre. Directed by Sam Gold, starring the inimitable Daniel Craig as the titular witch-doomed protagonist and superlative Ruth Negga as his feral, treachery-inspiring wife, the presentation is bold, daring, dramatic, enthralling, surprising, weird, completely irregular and defiant of critical examination.
Yet, the critics have had a field day, a bit reminiscent of Peter O’Toole’s production of Macbeth (1980), that critics ridiculed immodestly. However, the audience found O’Toole and the cast mesmerizing, and packed the Old Vic each night. Gold’s Macbeth is packing the Longacre Theatre despite venom-tongued, snarky criticism.
Macbeth theatrical productions have sprung up as star vehicles for Patrick Stewart, Alan Cummings, James McAvoy and Ethan Hawke to name a few. With each revival, each iteration of Macbeth, there have been intriguing conceptualizations. And this is as it should be, whether in modern dress, in an insane asylum or as this current production, on a stage stripped of showy spectacle, except for some of the Macbeth’s costumes, especially Lady Macbeth’s by Suttirat Larlarb. Gold’s bare stage, the back wall painted black, and Christine Jones’ minimalist set design (save the backdrop against which Macduff and Macbeth fight in the last scene), resemble a rehearsal space. There, the players strut and fret on the Longacre stage, for two hours and twenty minutes. Their discourse is audience directed interaction with resonant, beautifully delivered soliloquies by Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and others, i.e. Ross. Indeed, as Ross, Phillip James Brannon steals the scene where he describes the wanton blood-letting of Macduff’s family by Macbeth.
From the moment witches Maria Dizzia, Phillip James Brannon and Bobbi Mackenzie appear at their kitchen worktable and stovetop making preparations and cooking up their stew (which has a distinctive odor of root vegetables), in this pre-scene before the play, nothing is as what it seems (a key theme). The audience chats. The lights are on. Ushers seat audience members. Many ignore the casually dressed characters whose costumes have less distinction than the audience apparel. It is apparent that Gold is upending our expectations about Macbeth’s movers and shakers, the witches. These are homely, benign-looking creatures of no consequence, “cooking up a storm or two.”
Along with the theme that everything is in reverse (fair is foul, foul is fair), and appearances are not to be trusted, the fog machine (carried by various players) symbolizes misdirection and gaslighting. The fog and mist serves a twofold purpose: to create scenes of foreboding and an atmosphere of doom because reality and truth are indecipherable to the players. Unpredictability is another theme this production brings in from beginning to end. Nothing is assured, no action of the characters is staid; only the lines spoken in various accents are dependably Shakespeare’s (though truncated) in this interpretation which doesn’t quite follow the play’s usual format and dialogue with precision.
Gold shepherds his actors to take liberties, break the fourth wall, at times appear to ad lib, use anachronisms and coy props, like a can of beer for a gallows laugh and employ the acutely strange. For example he has Paul Lazar in a switch off from his role of trusting King Duncan take off his bloody “fat” vest and strip down to his shorts to “become” the porter who receives Macduff (Grantham Coleman) and Lennox Michael Patrick Thornton. All is at the hazard and then it is not. There is comedy in the tragic and a hysterical mania flows throughout. If this is confounding, it is purposeful. The kingdom in chaos and confusion reigns everywhere. Without clarity and leadership Scotland falls prey to a treacherous usurper who transforms the realm to one of darkness, uncertainty, moral weakness, corruption and lies all of whose troubling turbulence will not be easily stemmed. The witches have generated all of these elements.
The witches cook; we ascertain their “agreement.” As they plot, we recognize that the events are being determined, unseen and unknown way before the witches manifest themselves on the heath. By the time they appear to Macbeth and Banquo (Amber Gray), they’ve completed the brew which the witches make Banquo and Macbeth drink, alluring their souls and psyches forever to their fates, ineluctable, irrevocable.
In dramatic irony with emphasis, Gold allows us to see the witches’ power and control. This is something that King James I would have believed, something that Shakespeare wrote for him. I never understood the extent of their power before, thinking they trick Macbeth with the power of suggestion. In Gold’s vision, the witches’ plot has been a while in the making, in another realm and beyond the awareness of all the characters. Thus, we are reminded that before majestic events occur, there are forces at work that may never be understood or gleaned. However, that doesn’t mean that because they are unknown, they don’t greatly influence the events. Gold emphasizes this notion with his pre-play action of the witches.
Additionally, before they state the over arching theme of this production “fair is foul and foul is fair, hover through the fog and filthy air,” at the beginning of the play, out comes Michael Patrick Thornton in antic humor. He discusses the superstition about stating the name of Macbeth onstage, violating the dictum it must not be mentioned and should only be referred to as “The Scottish Play.” After getting audience laughs, Thornton gives an interesting discourse on, James I, King of England and Scotland, his obsession with witches and witch burnings, and Shakespeare’s writing three of his finest tragedies during The Bubonic Plague, where he and others in Europe had to “shelter in.” Macbeth was written during the Plague.
This and more Thornton relates effectively with humor, pacing and irony, addressing the audience as himself, though he later portrays Lennox, a murderer and the messenger of doom for Macbeth. The transition from Thornton in the present to the increasingly serious past events and spell-casting witches is masterfully seamless as we are taken to the hanging and death of a traitor who has admitted and repented his treason against the king, something Macbeth will never do.
The timeless currency of the play abides. Gold (as some critics suggested he should) doesn’t specifically reference the events going on globally (2022) via scenic design or props. He doesn’t need to; the parallels are manifest. The play’s greatness is in its revelation of the best and worst of human nature revealed in the dialogue, events and fine performances by Craig, Negga and the other leads.
Negga’s Lady Macbeth reveals her wicked heart’s desire in her soliloquies. These prepare us for the extent to which she must manipulate her husband by any means necessary, including insulting his manhood and demeaning his fears of failure and pangs of conscience. Not understanding that he is terrorized about the significance of his terrible deeds, she upbraids him for fleeing Duncan’s bedchamber carrying the bloody daggers with him which evidence his guilt. It is as if he begs to be caught and punished for what he’s done; the scene between Negga and Craig is effective and authentic.
By this point the couple has become divided by intent and the consequence of their actions; Macbeth feels the dire results coming, Lady Macbeth does not let it impact her. The shift is clear and Gold never brings them together again with affection. In this first part Lady Macbeth swamps Macbeth’s nobility. She stirs up his acknowledged desire for the throne, despite his rational judgment that no good result will come of killing Duncan, his kinsman and his guest.
As Macbeth, Craig’s, doubt, confusion and fear before killing Duncan and his shock and horror afterward are straightforward and powerful. Likewise, Negga’s Lady Macbeth is steely as she mentally fashions his will and bends it to hers. Pointedly, after both are crowned, Craig’s Macbeth and Negga’s Lady Macbeth accurately reveal the dissolution of their self-respect and love for each other. Craig’s Macbeth becomes obsessed by the negative results his inner guilt has forewarned. After his crowning the witches’ prophecies “fog” his judgment provoking his jealousy that Banquo’s heirs will be on the throne and his will not. Lady Macbeth’s distraction grows after she chides Macbeth at the banquet, the last time they will be purposefully together. She is not apprehending Banquo’s ghost that plagues Macbeth’s mind because of the witches’ prophecy of Banquo’s heirs. At the end of Act I, the witches’ plot is in full force. It submerges any decency left in this once august couple, who now grow emotionally isolated from each other, locked in their own soulful torture chambers.
Gold’s direction of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth at this juncture in their relationship (showing no affection only rancor), indicates that the regicide, whether they want to admit it or not, has been the defining movement of their lives. Everything afterward is a counting down to their deaths. Craig’s performance reveals scene by scene, soliloquy by soliloquy the evanescence of courage with wanton carelessness and cheek (one example is when he gets the beer and drinks it). After he witnesses Banquo’s ghost he admits he is “stepped in blood so far, should I wade no more, returning would be tedious go’er.” Thus, “blood will have blood;” he allows his unrestrained lust for power to expand its corruption and visits the witches for affirmation, which he is duped to believe they give him. But what seems fair, is really foul.
Interestingly, following Shakespeare, Gold and his creative team suggest that the seeds of evil are planted by spiritual forces way before Macbeth’s self-treachery and vengeful violent nature become visible. The corruption and wickedness blossom imperceptibly, then accrue with coverups and lies (symbolized by fog and mist). The more the despotic tyrant doesn’t achieve his goal, the more he furiously lusts to accomplish it with the “help” of the witches who give him an illusory prophecy that he is immortal. This sustains him unstopped by his countrymen, until Macduff (Grantham Coleman) kills him. Indeed, tyrants like Macbeth are never satisfied. When Banquo’s son Fleance (Emeka Guindo) escapes Macbeth’s killing, thwarted, Macbeth shifts his path. Murderous revenge becomes his goal.
Craig manifests Macbeth’s transitions, superbly moving from guilt in refusing to go back to the King’s chamber to smear the chamberlains with Duncan’s blood, to raging at the audacity of Banquo’s ghost coming out from and around the banquet table, returning again and again in a scene that is chillingly effective. And when he attempts to secure his kingdom and learns that Malcolm and Macduff left for England to conspire against him, he has no compunctions about wiping out innocent Macduff’s family in revenge (another powerful scene). He has lost it; logically his blood-lust and terrorism only will inflame his enemies even more and give them license to turn his own subjects against him.
Indeed, blood will have blood, the recurring theme. Negga’s nightmare isolation is acutely staged and rendered as Lady Macbeth envisions blood stains that can never be cleansed from her hand…soul. In this version, Gold and the actors helped me better understand Shakespeare’s behind the scenes look into the human mind, soul and heart of a serial murderer and political tyrant and his unwitting, power-hungry ambitious wife. With brilliance Gold and the actors relay the process of how the wicked couple are snared by conscience then incited by megalomania to never repent. They select the path of emotional self-violation and we get to watch them unravel.
After the bloody combat between Macduff (Grantham Coleman) and Daniel Craig’s Macbeth renders Macduff victorious, Macduff defers to Malcolm (Asia Kate Dillon) as the King of Scotland. In conclusion she takes the power her father rightly bestowed upon her in the play’s beginning.
SPOILER ALERT. Gold truncates Malcolm’s dialogue so she doesn’t invite Macduff and the other thanes to Scone for her crowning. Interestingly, the play continues as an epilogue of irony. The actors put off their roles, fling themselves on the floor, take a well deserved break, and pass around bowls of “gruel” to each other that the witches prepared (offstage). The cast eats their portions silently as the audience watches, (it looks unappetizing). As they eat Bobbi Mackenzie (a witch and Macduff’s slaughtered child) soothingly, lyrically sings Gaeynn Lea’s originally composed song for Macbeth, “Perfect.” The last lines are:
“Tragedy’s viewed through its own lens; but just out of frame sits an old friend, watching our choices play out in the end, returning each other to where we began. Wish I had known it wasn’t meant to be, wasn’t meant to be perfect.”
This may be interpreted in many ways; an ironic apology for what we’ve witnessed as Macbeth’s failure that turned out badly. Indeed, as an “every person” such horrific behaviors can’t “be” perfect, ever. On the other hand it is humanity’s evolutionary process to continue and since we all are mortal, attempting to live forever, as Banquo and Macbeth attempted, the song/play speaks to human foibles. The message emphasizes imperfection, life’s disjointedness and entropy. Every murderous, cataclysmic, bloody, debacle where a despotic nature’s worst impulses for power, regency, a new Russian empire are allowed to be acted out, it is not meant to be…perfect and will not be. Thus, the despot needs to give it up sooner rather than later and save lives in the process. In another interpretation the actors wind down in their community with each other as they seal their commitment to take up their parts and “die another day.”
Shakespeare affirms the sanctity of life and the balance of evil and good in the thoughts of the noble, courageous yet monstrous Macbeth and his Lady as they bring about their own retribution and justice. Their own being effects their demise: Lady Macbeth commits suicide; Macbeth by giving himself over to the process of evil after his regicide. In reality, we can never know the inner thoughts of a Vladimir Putin or Stalin or Hitler. We can only guess at their fears, paranoias and heart’s desires. In Macbeth we have the luxury of understanding the tragedy of their rise and fall.
This is a unique production thanks to Gold, the cast, the superbly effective lighting design by Jane Cox, sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman, special effects by Jeremy Chernick and projection design by Jeanette Ol-suck Yew. Also, the original music by Gaelynn Lea is amazing. For atmospheric effects I particularly enjoyed the crashing revelations (i.e. lighting, sound, etc.) when the ambiguity of the witches’ prophecies clarify (i.e. how Birnam wood comes to Dunsinane). Additionally, kudos to Sam Pinkleton’s movement. Coupled with lighting, sound and special effects the chilling atmosphere of opaqueness and obscurity with the fog machines (which signified the theme of cover ups, lies, obfuscation of “truth”) was strengthened. David S. Leong’s direction of the violence was effected believably in service to the theme of blood will have blood.
This Macbeth will not be duplicated in your lifetime with this community of individuals. It is an incredible experience. For tickets and times go to the website: https://macbethbroadway.com/