Lust for power can defy logic. Why does anyone succumb to greed or ambition? Where Shakespeare probes primal urges through poetry and dirty deeds, director Sam Gold seems to question the very point of trying to make sense of them at all. His new Broadway staging of “Macbeth,” top-lined by Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga, is an evasive exercise in stylistic provocation. At once stripped-down and gussied up, it’s full of sound and fury without a lot of coherent signifying.
And maybe that’s the point. A program note from dramaturgs Michael Sexton and Ayanna Thompson reads like a kind of preemptive apology, noting the production’s “maximum fluidity and speed,” as suits its portrayal of a world where “people’s motives, loyalties and true selves are shifting, unstable and unclear.” Mercurial natures are the stuff of great drama, from the Greeks to Bravo TV. But there’s clarity to the passions and plot of “Macbeth” that is lost beyond this revival’s surface fixations. It’s like skimming the CliffsNotes after a generous bong hit and getting the gist, but not much insight.
The opening gesture seems like an invitation to lean in. The curtain is up as the audience enters, the stage black and bare but for a ghostlight, and actors are visible in the wings. A few stand over a table to one side, chopping vegetables into a pot that already smells of sautéed onions. The actor Michael Patrick Thornton casually addresses the crowd: We’ve all heard about the curse, so let’s mouth the title under our masks to cast a spell. What’s with the witches? King James I, who commissioned “Macbeth,” had a thing. Oh, and Shakespeare wrote the play during another pandemic.
Just as soon as it suggests proximity, this production emphasizes artifice and maintains its distance. Handheld smoke machines and flashlights manufacture thick atmosphere (lighting is by Jane Cox). Macbeth raises his dagger high and stabs the king to piercing shrieks, à la Hitchcock’s “Psycho” (sound is by Mikaal Sulaiman). Costumes by Suttirat Larlarb dominate the production’s curious aesthetic, with a motley mix of what looks like Goodwill finds (slouchy cardigans, dated prints) and sleek Zara basics. The Macbeths are at first pointedly tacky, in iridescent silhouettes that would land them among the prom’s worst dressed.
It could all be delicious fun if it didn’t add up to a lot of distraction — and come at the expense of legibility. Flip to the program’s synopsis if you’re not sure how all of this goes, and do try to keep up.
“Macbeth” is Shakespere’s tightest tragedy, and Gold takes to heart the thane’s approach to regicide — “’twere well it were done quickly.” The production moves with a clipped momentum that’s more reflected in the staging than it is in the pulse of the Macbeths’ desire for dominance. The couple is murder happy from their very first scene together, and only grows more so. The fun is that they let us in on their conniving thoughts, even as their rampage curdles.
Craig, fantastic as Iago in Gold’s 2016 mounting of “Othello” at New York Theatre Workshop, commands verse with an unforced authority (and cuts a vigorous figure). But his Macbeth doesn’t seem consumed by possibility, malleable to suggestion or ultimately drowned by guilt and delusion. Craig dispenses the text with intelligence and precision, but lacks some of the doubt and vulnerability that lend dimension to the usurper’s doomed downfall.
Negga, a marvel in Yaël Farber’s 2020 revival of “Hamlet” at St. Ann’s Warehouse, is nimble and agile with the language, a graceful and evocative stage presence. But there’s an opacity to both lead performances that shrouds the turning of gears, and an evenness that flattens fluctuations of feeling. (When the lady finally goes mad, it’s a relief to see Negga with another level to play.) Some of the ensemble stands out for their emotional transparency, including Amber Gray (as Banquo) and Maria Dizzia (First Witch and Lady Macduff). But others, like Thornton (Lennox) and Asia Kate Dillon (Malcolm), stand out with a modern ear for the text that sounds disjointed from the rest.
Gold’s production strips “Macbeth” of context, but does not functionally wrestle with the timeless stuff that’s left. There’s not much revealed here about the folly of avarice, or why it makes people crazy. The most human thing onstage is gobs of spilled blood, gushing from a slit throat and poured into the witches’ stew, or staining the skin and robes of the killers and the damned. It’s a grisly and unearned grasp for thrills from a production without a cohesive life force of its own.
“Macbeth” opened at the Longacre Theatre on April 28, 2022.
Review Photo: Joan Marcus
Creative: Written by William Shakespeare; Original Music by Gaelynn Lea; Directed by Sam Gold; Scenic Design by Christine Jones; Costume Design by Suttirat Larlarb; Lighting Design by Jane Cox; Sound Design by Mikaal Sulaiman; Projection Design by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew.
Producers: Barbara Broccoli, The Shubert Organization, Michael G. Wilson, Fred Zollo, Christian Anderson, Keith Anderson, Brian Carmody, Patrick Milling-Smith, No Guarantees, Brian Anthony Moreland, Annapurna Theatre, Berdel Productions, Robert Boyett, Caledonia Productions, Empire Street Productions, Jeffrey Finn, John Gore Organization, Mini Cooper, James L. Nederlander, RDR Productions, Daryl Roth and Orin Wolf.
Cast: Daniel Craig, Ruth Negga, Che Ayende, Phillip James Brannon, Grantham Coleman, Asia Kate Dillon, Maria Dizzia, Eboni Flowers, Amber Gray, Emeka Guindo, Paul Lazar, Bobbi MacKenzie, Michael Patrick Thornton and Danny Wolohan.