Thursday, February 28, 2008

A Tyrant Bloody-Sceptered: Macbeth at BAM

It's official: the two Shakespeare plays I am most familiar with--the only two I have ever acted in, and the ones I have seen most often--are The Comedy of Errors and Macbeth. Neither are among my favorites, though I do think it's easier to make The Comedy of Errors actually work onstage (so does that make it a "better" play? I don't know). More on that play tomorrow. Anyway, one of my posts from last October rounds up my previous encounters with the Scottish Play, and now I can add to it, since last Sunday my Shakespeare class saw the Patrick Stewart production currently playing at BAM and soon to transfer to Broadway.

We all became skeptical when we read in the program that the performance would last three hours--"It's Shakespeare's shortest tragedy! How can you drag it out to three hours?" we asked each other. And indeed, at intermission we agreed that this was the "pause-iest" Macbeth we had ever seen. My classmates who know more about Shakespearean acting than I do--having studied in London and acted in Vassar's own Macbeth production last fall--pointed out that the acting style was very British, very cerebral, very refined, a lot of thought put into it, but also lots of extraneous pauses. At one point Macbeth says:
Ay, in the catalogue you go for men,
As hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs,
Shoughs, water-rugs, and demi-wolves are clept
All by the name of dogs.
In Patrick Stewart's rendition, this became "Hounds... and greyhounds... mongrels... spaniels... curs..." The same thing happened when Malcolm lists the "king-becoming graces" in Act 4 scene 3: he took them so slowly ("Justice... Verity... Temperance... Stableness...") that we wondered if he'd forgotten his lines. Later in that same scene, when Macduff learns that his family has been killed, there was a pause, I swear, a minute long, as he reacted to the news. I know that this is supposed to be very moving--it's usually one of my favorite parts of the play--but somehow I wanted to laugh, just because it confirmed what my friends and I had been saying at intermission, about the extreme pauses in this Macbeth. And maybe these long pauses work well in cinema, where you could watch the slightest emotions play over a close-up of Macduff's face, but this doesn't register high up in the balcony at BAM.

At the same time, I was glad that the production tried to give proper weight to this touching scene, and indeed, it got a lot of other things right, in terms of mood, atmosphere, and interpretation. When Duncan arrives at Macbeth's castle, he says "This castle hath a pleasant seat; the air / Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself / Unto our gentle senses." Most productions make a hash out of that line because they've designed Macbeth's castle to be the darkest, grimiest, spookiest building in Scotland. And maybe it should look that way late at night, during the scenes surrounding Duncan' s murder. But when he first arrives, it's late afternoon, and the Macbeths are doing everything to make him feel comfortable--to lure him into their trap. So I liked how the BAM production made this clear: the lights were warm and bright, and the three witches (who doubled as servants, nurses, etc.) stood around chopping vegetables. The audience realizes that the chopping knives and the witches are vaguely sinister, but poor Duncan is oblivious, and sees only the cheerful kitchen.

Another thing I always complain about with Macbeth, is that it is difficult to distinguish one thane from another. This is the first production I've ever seen that really made an effort to do this--well, most of the thanes were run-of-the-mill "warrior" types, but one, Ross, became a little rotund fellow with glasses and a briefcase. A political consultant, an "ideas guy"--not a warlord. This made him instantly recognizable and sympathetic: an awkward underdog, out of place in the fascistic world of the play. He even provided some comic relief (which the Porter did not do--being directed to go for scary rage instead of drunken humor).

About the fascistic, Stalinist gloss laid atop the play (including a mustache for Mr. Stewart): well, I do feel that Stalin is becoming a cliché second only to the Nazis in representing "contemporary evil," plus, as my class decided on Monday, setting the play in Russia in the 1950s kind of distances it from us, makes it seem less relevant than it could be. And I felt a cognitive dissonance seeing Cyrillic signs and Russian-language songs added to "the Scottish Play." Still, the text indicates that King Macbeth becomes what we would now call a fascist, and not enough productions of Macbeth emphasize his developing sadistic cruelty. More than just a murderer, he has his whole kingdom living in terror and famine (see Act 3, scene 6). This production found a brilliant way to illustrate this: usually the feast at which Banquo's ghost appears is staged as a jolly royal party, but here, you could tell that Macbeth's guests feared their host. He made threatening gestures toward Ross when Ross took a sip of wine before anyone else did. And that, for me, was more effective at showing Macbeth's tyranny than any allusion to Stalin could ever be.

The whole feast scene was, in fact, terrifically staged, with the intermission coming right in the middle of it, just as Banquo's bloody ghost appeared. After intermission, the actors repeated the first half of the scene in pantomime, but then the ghost did not come out, and we got to see what Macbeth's guests perceive: their king cringing in terror before the empty air. Other coups de théâtre included staging Banquo's murder on a crowded train (so atmospheric!), and the choice to begin the play with the Bloody Captain's report of battle conditions to Duncan, after which his three nurses transform into the three witches. I also liked how the end of the play didn't have a simplistic "Yay, Malcolm is king, everything is happy!" vibe, but emphasized the battle losses and the cycle of violence that begins and ends the play (with a blood-shiny prosthetic "Macbeth head" onstage for the entire last scene).

I liked Patrick Stewart's portrayal of Macbeth and physically he seems much younger than his 67 years, but he was not in good vocal health when I saw him--constantly sounding hoarse. Maybe he was getting over an illness? Using my "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" litmus test: he delivered it well even if, you know, he took a lot of pauses--here, pauses of frustration and rage. Perhaps he was not a tragic figure, but certainly the angriest and most tyrannical Macbeth I have experienced. In general, I was happy to see a production of Macbeth that focused more on the political than on the supernatural, something I think often gets ignored in stagings of this play.

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