During the opening night performance of Macbeth at Berkeley Rep, a couple sat directly to my right. Throughout the first act, the husband repeatedly brought his thumb and forefinger to the middle of his brow, gently pinching his nose. In a conciliatory, conspiratorial gesture, his wife released a sigh each time his agitated hand returned to his lap. As soon as the curtain closed at intermission, he turned to his wife in a perturbed state of exasperation and exclaimed, “I can’t understand what they’re saying.” Without a word, she stroked his wrist and they stood up together to join the long lines forming at the lobby bar.
[jump] This is but one of the many difficulties contemporary theater companies face when they attempt to present Shakespeare’s plays. Even if you’ve read the plays in high school or college, the language of 16th- and 17th-century England often remains alien to even the most openminded of audiences. How then do a director and his creative team contend with our disconnect from a play written 400 years ago?
In this instance, they've taken a bifurcated approach. First, they’ve hired Frances McDormand, an actress whose star power resides in her intelligence and wit rather than in an aura of manufactured glamor. We hold great reserves of affection for the kinds of roles she chooses to pursue. She is the American equivalent of Maggie Smith, inspiring both awe and intimidation. On paper, the part of Lady Macbeth sounds like a natural fit. If anyone could make the character human-sized and recognizable in an American idiom, surely McDormand would.
But the troubles here begin with the second approach: The set and
sound design have been produced at maximal volume and minimal nuance. Giant speakers echo with the cawing of rooks or crows circling in endless distress. To underline the presence of an avian menace, the soundtrack alternates between a percussive din that punctuates a scene’s end with an exclamation point and metallic rattles and tearing sounds akin to the ones that accentuated the sinking ship in James Cameron’s Titanic.
The set changes swoop up and down and left and right, arriving nimbly and suddenly like those ambulatory partitions meant to startle and stun on a funhouse ride. This dependence on stagecraft spectacle is also on display through the intermittent use of an expansive video screen at the back of the stage. Instead of enhancing the audience experience, the projections stifle and restrict an imaginative response to the spoken lines. When three soldiers pretend to be out of breath as they run in place before a loop of moving forest, it looks like a buffoon’s routine from The Three Stooges. Later in the play, when the witches show Macbeth his visions, they are projected as clunky, literal versions as if lately extracted from a primitive arcade game.
As the second act hurries to its conclusion, it becomes clear that the director expended his energies on the exteriors. All this noise and clatter interferes with what the acting itself ought to do. Conleth Hill in the title role, at times, delivers certain lines as if he were in an acerbic black comedy. This tonal misstep indicates either the lack of a helmsman or a devaluing of the play as tragedy. Currently, Hill is one of the stars of the HBO television series Game of Thrones. As part of that ensemble, he is a convincing consigliere to the men and women seeking to gain or regain royal power. As a commanding warrior and murderer and would-be king, he is less so. The actors who fill out the production, with the exception of James Carpenter as Duncan and Porter, are unable to communicate the meaning of the words to the uninitiated. They’ve memorized and rehearsed the lines well. Almost universally, however, the director has instructed the actors to transmit emotion by shouting. It’s as if a podium stood between them and the audience, in the same way a politician delivers an overly familiar stump speech. The lines are not treated as if the character is involved in the act of self discovery. The effort is performative though unfeeling and empty.
In a 1978 BBC production of Macbeth, Ian McKellan and Judi Dench starred in the titular roles. Their performances are lucid and thrilling. It’s not simply that their British accents organically mold around the dialogue to take hold of the language. They both convey a dizzying sense of what’s at stake for their public/political selves and their idiosyncratic/personal ones. It’s this very divide between the public mask they don and the private self they only show to each other that feeds into their latent neuroses. Both are motivated by their ambitions but when they appear onscreen together for the first time, they whip themselves and each other into a frenzy of ardor. This political desire to rise above their station arouses them to take action and, simultaneously, blinds them to their burgeoning folly.
It may be unfair to compare productions that are separated by time and geography, but it’s that specific clarity of purpose and passion that’s missing here. The couple to my right stayed seated when the first few rows began a standing ovation. It was brief and did not catch on.
Macbeth, through April 10 at Berkeley Rep, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley, 510-647-2949.