Shakespeare didn’t write the very beginning and the very end of this generally wan and inscrutable production of “Macbeth,” starring Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga. The aggressively inventive director Sam Gold has added an opening monologue and a closing song, and I think they offer clues to what he is trying to do in his version of the tragedy, now running at Broadway’s Longacre Theater through July 10.
As we take our seats, three cast members dressed casually (the witches?) cook something (soup?) on the side of the stage, as if for a potluck dinner. Then, Michael Patrick Thornton, who will portray the minor character Lennox as well as a murderer, rolls his wheelchair front and center and cheerfully offers some context to the play, including the information that Shakespeare wrote it in 1605, when theaters were shut down because of the plague. At the end of the play, Bobbie McKenzie, who has portrayed one of the witches as well as Macduff’s child, sings an original song by Gaelynn Lea entitled “Perfect,” which seems to be about a love affair but could also be interpreted as a comment on the actors’ struggles during the pandemic:
Behind the scenes
We just wouldn’t let it go
Wouldn’t let it go
While she sings, the rest of the cast sit on the stage and eat from bowls, presumably the soup the witches were making at the beginning.
During the play itself, which features minimal scenery and modern dress, there seems to be a concerted effort to make us aware at all times that this is a company of actors who are putting on a play. The staging sometimes feels like an acting exercise conducted during a rehearsal. We frequently see cast members using portable smoke machines to create the fog effect.
Putting all these odd choices together, Gold seems to be using “Macbeth” to celebrate the return of live, in-person theater. In one way, this feels appropriate, even lovely, because “Macbeth” is the final show to open in the first full Broadway season in two years, a season plagued with the persistent effects of COVID-19. This company has been hit particularly hard; at the performance I saw, two central characters were being performed by understudies.
But this apparent subtext, admirable as it is, doesn’t have much to do with this particular play. In general, Gold’s approach in this production doesn’t seem to serve the specifics of “Macbeth,” certainly not with much force or clarity. Many of the actors portray two or three roles, there are few clearly articulated scene changes. In a note on the production, the two dramaturgs write that this “simplicity and flexibility…enables a high level of imaginative participation” – which I took to mean, you’re on your own. It helps to reacquaint yourself in advance with the details of this story about a warrior whose ambition and tricky supernatural prophecies, and intense wife, lead to murder, guilt, madness and defeat. Such preparation is not something you need to do with, say, the Joel Coen movie of “Macbeth” starring Denzel Washington currently on Apple TV+. At play’s end, I walked out of the Longacre mostly confused.
Now, Gold has directed Shakespeare before with bold choices, some of which didn’t work for me, but which overall felt original and worthwhile.
In Gold’s 2019 Broadway production of King Lear, a string quartet’s constant and overly loud music by Philip Glass seemed to be competing with the dialogue rather than enhancing it. But in his casting of Glenda Jackson in the title role, an 82-year-old woman, Gold was emphasizing the physical fragility of Lear in a way that no other production I’ve seen of that tragedy has ever done.
In Gold’s 2016 Off-Broadway production of Othello, he turned an East Village theater into a modern military barracks with some uncomfortable wooden bleachers for us recruits, and a claustrophobically lowered ceiling. And he presented some crucial scenes entirely in the dark. But he got terrific performances out of a first-rate cast.
That cast included Daniel Craig, who impressively portrayed a blunt and muscular Iago.
Six years later, the 007 movie star and Broadway veteran is delivering a performance that, to be most charitable about it, I just don’t get. For much of the first act, he looks and sounds less like a brave warrior from 11th century Scotland than a physical trainer lounging at home in Brooklyn. (The few pieces of furniture in Christine Jones’ set could come from Macy’s.) My guess is this is supposed to show how weak-willed the character is initially, one who, despite his ambition, would not become a murderer were not for the goading and manipulation of his far more ruthless wife. But the character just comes across as bland. Later, he exhibits great moments of intensity, and we see his physical transformation into the manly warrior we were told about from the get-go, in inverse proportion to Lady Macbeth’s collapse. Even then, though, Craig delivers the famous “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” soliloquy as if he’s trying to make it as unmemorable as possible (just to be different?)
Ruth Negga, making her Broadway debut, fares far better, not only in conveying the fierceness of her character, and then her madness, but in voicing Shakespeare’s words as if they matter. It there’s an off note, it’s a small one: When she shouts “Out, damned spot” she’s not trying to clean the (hallucinated) blood from her hands, but scrubbing a spot on the floor, as if an insane house cleaner.
There are other actors who stand out. Paul Lazar, long-time downtown theater royalty, makes an overdue Broadway debut. As King Duncan he is stabbed brutally on stage. Then he stands up, takes off his bloody fat suit, and walks all the way downstage; the curtain closes behind him, and he performs the comic character the Porter. (This recalls a similar stunt in Gold’s 2017 “Hamlet,” when the actors portraying Polonius and his daughter Ophelia buried themselves in mud onstage, and then reemerged as new characters, the gravediggers.) Also making noteworthy Broadway debuts are Asia Kate Dillon (whom you might recognize as the non-binary financial wizard Taylor Mason in Showtime’s “Billions), as Malcolm, and Michael Patrick Thornton (whom you might know as Dr. Fife in “Private Practice.”) I think it’s worth pointing out that Gold has an admirable track record of casting performers who don’t necessarily fit the conventional mold of the characters (or of the traditional Broadway actor.)
I’m delighted to see Amber Gray, Tony nominee for Hadestown, in the gender-reversed role of Banquo, and – in three roles apiece, including two of the three witches – the always reliable New York theater regulars Phillip James Brannon and Maria Dizzia.
I wish I didn’t have the nagging feeling that the director was less interested in these actors than in his special touches. These include a particular attention to gore (an amputated leg chopped up as part of the witches’ brew elicited an audible blecchh from the audience.) This seems ironic, because this “Macbeth” struck me as a bit bloodless.
“Macbeth” is subject to frequent experimentation. In the last two Broadway productions of it, both nine years ago, 1. At the Ethel Barrymore, Alan Cumming portrayed a patient in a psychiatric unit bringing 15 characters from the Scottish Play to life, and 2. At Lincoln Center, Ethan Hawke had to play second fiddle to the witches, who were the focus of the production – a show that I most remember because the elaborate set broke down, and Hawke came out and played guitar for us while they tried to fix it. Off-Broadway, just in the year before the pandemic, there was a musical called Scotland, PA which was set in a fast food emporium, and a Macbeth rewritten into accessible English by Migdalia Cruze. Then of course there’s the wordless immersive version, “Sleep No More”
More than the character of Macbeth has vaulting ambition; so do theater artists, and we’re better off for it.
Longacre Theater through July 10
Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, including one intermission
Tickets: $45 to $499
Scenic design by Christine Jones, costume design by Suttirat Larlarb, lighting design by Jane Cox, sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman, original music by Gaelynn Lea, special effects design by Jeremy Chernick, fight direction by David Leong, movement by Sam Pinkleton and casting by David Caparelliotis. Michael Sexton & Ayanna Thompson serve as dramaturgy & text consultants and Dawn-Elin Fraser serves as vocal coach. Kevin Bertolacci serves as production stage manager and 101 Productions, Ltd. serves as the general manager.
Cast: Daniel Craig, Ruth Negga, Tina Benko, Phillip James Brannon, Lizzy Brooks, Jared Canfield, Grantham Coleman, Asia Kate Dillon, Maria Dizzia, Ronald Emile, Amber Gray, Emeka Guindo, Paul Lazar, Bobbi MacKenzie, Michal Patrick Thornton, Danny Wolohan, Che Ayende, Eboni Flowers, Stevie Ray Dallimore, and Peter Smith.