Theater Review: “Macbeth” — Rousing Mayhem on the Boston Common
By Bill Marx
This version of Shakespeare’s tragedy comes off as an uncomplicated tale of murder under a starlit Boston sky that obligingly lights Macbeth’s “black and deep desires.”
Macbeth by William Shakespeare. Directed by Steven Maler. Staged by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company at the Parkman Bandstand, Boston Common, through August 6.
One of my favorite essays on Macbeth is Mary McCarthy’s “General Macbeth,” which argues that the protagonist and his helpmate in homicide are nothing if not commonplace. These are two ordinary people who — baited the right way at the right time — conjoin to commit regicide. And they act while the monarch is asleep, which makes it even worse. Famously, Macbeth murders his and his own wife’s slumber after they commit the deed. And that is at the heart of McCarthy’s point. Shakespeare’s tragedy contains plenty of talk about the “dunnest smoke of hell,” but when you come down to it, Macbeth is not Iago or Richard III or Edmund. We watch him as he evolves, assisted by his fierce mate, from hail-and-well-met warrior to serial killer. Macbeth and wife are not psychopaths, emotionally dissociated from their death-dealing. They are human beings who, to make their move to the top, must suppress their humanity. The catch is that they don’t know when to stop. “Make thick my blood,” pleads Lady Macbeth, “Stop up th’ access and passage to remorse.” In Shakespeare’s brilliant cross-patterning, the initially resolute wife succumbs to maddening visions of guilt, while her once fearful husband grows ever more resolute in his monsterhood. Shakespeare’s warning is that something wicked this way comes … from out of ourselves if we lower our defenses.
I wanted to make this point because it underlines the strengths and weaknesses of Steven Maler’s Macbeth, an enjoyable enough evening of Bardic bedlam on the Boston Common. The staging moves along with a melodramatic energy that is rarely waylaid by nuance or ventures into provocative extremes. There are few attempts to create a conventional backdrop of doom and gloom — a few halfhearted spurts of fog, a sprinkling of “spooky” lighting effects, a soundscape filled with tiresome metallic banging and clanging. The set is a shell of a battle-battered building with a rusty jeep sitting out front; the costuming, aside from Lady Macbeth’s striking (and flamboyantly ironic) white outfit, is mostly army fatigues — even the Witches look as if they are serving a stint in the military. (A Supernatural Space Force?) Not much comes along that frightens or shocks — the script’s scenes of violence are soft and stylized. The most alarming moment, at least for me, arrives with the resounding slap Lady Macbeth lands on hubby’s face to keep him from raving about Banquo’s ghost. For that one moment, you are on her side: “Snap out of it!” The lack of atmospherics means that the production must focus on the script’s psychological complexity, on the various efforts to repress, or express, humanity, from the devolution of the Macbeths to the evolution of those changed with eliminating their evil — Malcolm, Macduff, etc.
The CSC staging takes a pretty straightforward hand to the Macbeths: they go about plotting and committing their bloody deeds with a pragmatic fervor. They never seem to be surprised by what comes out of their mouths, even though the script implies the pair is startled by where its upwardly mobile desires are driving it. (Who would have dreamed we could have pulled off a crime like this?) Faran Tahir’s Macbeth embraces toxic masculinity with ease, his early reluctance giving way — with insufficient gear-shifting — to full out gung-ho. Tahir brings a brusque vocal power and commanding muscularity to the role, but his delivery of the verse lacks off-speed spin, particularly flickers of vulnerability or intimations of nihilism. His rendition of “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow” is dutiful, bereft of mournful heft. Joanne Kelly’s Lady Macbeth is of the slinky, sensual variety; this is a woman who uses her sexuality to lure her man into doing the wrong thing. She isn’t particularly steely or all that ferocious. As for the latter approach, I must pay homage to the late Glenda Jackson, who played Lady Macbeth to Christopher Plummer’s Macbeth in a late ’80s production. When Jackson delivered the “unsex me here” speech, she grabbed her breasts and yanked at them as if she wanted to rip them off. For once, you could see what the Bard was up to in this difficult scene: the hysterical extremes to which this woman is willing to go, the sacrifices she is willing to make, to blow away Macbeth’s fears. It was spine-tingling. Kelly is more effective when she applies agile touches of tenderness in the “sleepwalking” episode.
The supporting cast is steady but uncomplicated. There’s no suspicion Omar Robinson’s avuncular Banquo might be heading out with his son to consult with the Witches. Nael Nacer’s Macduff accepts his remorse with a ripe passion that empowers the man’s humanity as well as his desire for revenge. Marianna Bassham is an even-tempered Malcolm; John Kuntz’s vaudevillian ham of a Porter deserves — as he never stops wishing — to be remembered. His Doctor, though, should look a little more worried: the physician has seen what he shouldn’t in an authoritarian state. Maler’s most interesting idea is the suggestion, made via an opening tableau, that the Witches are somehow linked with (perhaps the ghosts of?) the men Macbeth has dispatched in battle. The figures take on various roles throughout the production (mostly the hired murderers), indicating that these demons are propelled by the victims’ thirst for vengeance. This point is absurdly brought home — with a two-ton clunk — in the production’s windup. The interpretation is intriguing, but it undercuts the anarchistic pizzazz — linguistic and otherwise — of the wild Witches. Do they really take sides? For the vanquished? It seems to me they might, in the future, have it in for the next Scottish ruler. On top of that, the conceit reinforces the notion that the self-destructive Macbeths are essentially fate’s marionettes, cogs in otherworldly wheels.
Still, the mayhem barrels proficiently along. This version of Shakespeare’s tragedy comes off as a rousing tale of murder under a starlit Boston sky that obligingly lights Macbeth’s “black and deep desires.”
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of the Arts Fuse. For four decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and the Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created the Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.