I’ve now seen a half-dozen straight stage productions of that play and I can say that, so far, I’m inclined to agree with Geoffrey Tennant’s assessment. Macbeth is, indeed, extraordinarily difficult to stage effectively. When the staging isn’t terribly effective - a problem with a production I saw in 1995 with two excellent Canadian actors in the leads - the play is limp when it needs to terrify. When the staging is effective, it can wind up swallowing the performances in effects. I recall a 2004 production, also Canadian, where we left the theatre humming the lighting. (To be fair, it was very good lighting.) A “concept” for the play can sometimes bring it vividly to life; other times, as in the most recent Stratford Macbeth (which I reviewed here), it only muddles a production that has many good things going for it otherwise.
But it’s a puzzle as to why. Macbeth, after all, should be, if not a pleasure to stage, certainly not a burden. Not only is it Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, its famous set-piece speeches - “if ‘twere done when ‘tis done,” “to-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow,” and so forth - are also relatively short; you don’t have to worry about the audience getting tired. It has a very clear through-line. It has these magnificent opportunities for theatrical effects - witches! floating daggers! ghosts! a bloody child! What’s the problem?
In the last couple of months, I saw three productions of the play, each of which dealt with this difficulty in different ways, none of them entirely successful. Although certainly the choices made by these three directorial teams do not exhaust the oceanic possibilities of this play, they were distinct enough and I saw them close enough together in time that I thought I’d try to draw some conclusions about how productions of Macbeth can, and do, go wrong, and how they might go right.
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If you’re going to call your company the Theatre for a New Audience, it seems to me that you are creating some kind of expectation that you will, as Ezra Pound demanded, make it new. Take what is familiar and make it strange again. The too-common way this is done is by donning a mask - hiding the play under layers of conceit. But the right way to do it is to peel off the mask, not to set out to frustrate our expectations but to forget, as you think about the play, that the expectations are there in the first place. If it is new to you, it may be new to us.
Strangely, though, TFNA productions have tended to do neither, but to present the play as, well, as we kind of already know it. And so it was with what I found to be a relatively lackluster Macbeth.
The problems begin with the staging. An empty stage can be powerful. But this stage was not empty; it was just dressed plainly, in drab gray stone that somehow emphasized the smallness of the space, shrank the tragedy not to human scale but to the scale of, well, a stage. The costumes, similarly, existed without being notable: vaguely period garb in plain brown. These choices did not create a sense of place. They were signifiers - signifiers that we were watching a play. That’s how you push the audience out of the action, something you might want to do with Threepenny Opera - but not, I think, with Macbeth.
Then come the witches. I don’t know why directors seem to have so much trouble with the witches. In this case, the director’s concept seemed to be: if their beards tell Macbeth and Banquo that these aren’t women, though they should be, I suppose they aren’t women. So I’ll cast men. I don’t know if the idea was that we should read them as bearded women, but they didn’t play that way. I don’t know if the idea was that these spirits should manifest a masculine spirit. I don’t know what the idea was, because nothing played in performance.
And on it goes. The director simply declined every opportunity to wake the audience’s imagination - most ridiculously in Macbeth’s second visit to the witches, when his terrifying visions are signified by the witches reflecting light in his eyes. John Douglas Thompson, a capable classical actor, is charged with communicating everything he sees through Shakespeare’s language alone - which is fine, but requiring him to overcome not only our own inhibitions to see what isn’t there, but the comical effect of the witches prancing around him with their little mirrors, really is too much to ask of any actor.
I’m disinclined to blame Thompson for what I found to be a generally uninteresting portrait of the tyrant. I saw his Emperor Jones last year at the Soho Playhouse, and he was riveting - his Jones, another tyrant fleeing the horrors conjured up by his own guilty mind, was, in fact, a more interesting Macbeth than his Macbeth, whose own depth of horror was plumbed only in the banquet scene. But whoever I choose to blame, someone in the production seemed afraid, as Macbeth is in the play, of what had to be done, and needed someone to tell him to screw his courage to the sticking place.
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Macbeth, as I have said, fairly invites a director to dream big: from the witches to the battle scenes, there is so much to make the audience see. The risk in showing it to us is that we still may not see it. One response to this problem is to show us as little as possible. Which seems to have been the guiding principle behind Cheek by Jowl’s production that played recently at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
By “show us as little as possible,” I don’t merely mean eschewing a traditional set or costumes. With the egregiously misguided exception of the Porter, this production does eschew them - the set is a handful of wooden crates, the costumes plain black shirts, jeans and dresses, combat boots for the men and no shoes at all for the women. But they eschewed more than that. Props? It’s common to do the dagger scene without the dagger. It’s less common to do the final battle scene with imaginary swords. It’s even less common to perform the various murders - of Banquo, of Lady Macduff and her children - without the murderers actually approaching their victims, making the actors stand center stage and mime being murdered while the murderers stand several yards off intoning their lines. Ditto for the witches, who we never see - they, too, intone their lines from the sides. Macbeth and Banquo see them, but we do not, unless it is through our mind’s eye watching theirs. This, I finally decided, was the point of the production concept. Macbeth is, to such a great extent, a play about the perils of a powerful imagination - imagination is what leads Macbeth on to his crime, and it is what undoes him thereafter - that there is some sense in saying: if you, the audience, want to come along on this journey, you must put yourself in Macbeth’s shoes. He sees what is not (yet) there. So must you.
But this refusal to show us what we expect to see runs even deeper, into the casting itself. Will Keen is not merely the shortest Macbeth I’ve ever seen, not merely the shortest man in the entire cast - he doesn’t play Macbeth as the kind of short man who overcompensates for his stature, a Napoleonic or Teddy Rooseveltish figure. Rather, he plays him as a runt, a little guy who’s in over his head as Thane of Cawdor, to say nothing of aiming for the crown. All right, then - it must have been Lady M (played by Anastasia Hille) who was the driving force behind the murders. That’s one way to play it, certainly. But no: Hille’s Lady M is terrified of her own plans before she even reveals them to her husband. Rarely have I seen “unsex me now” played so plainly as a desperate prayer. This woman is not the dragon we think Lady Macbeth is - she’s a terrified girl, willing herself to do something she’s quite sure she’s not up to.
This was the point at which this production, which put me off immediately by not staging the witches’ first entry, awakened my own interest. In this production, neither Macbeth nor his Lady is entirely persuasive as who they are supposed to be when they are alone. But when they are together, we suddenly understand what this story is. It’s a folie a deux. These are two terribly weak people, vanishingly unlikely to commit any sort of crime on their own. But they cannot help but urge each other on to infamy. There’s no ambition here. There’s only some twisted kind of love.
My own feeling about Lady Macbeth has always been that she is driven mad not by guilt but by the loss of her husband. After the murder, he stops trusting her, stops telling her what’s on his mind. He thinks he did this for her, and that he’s protecting her; he doesn’t understand that she did it for him, and that by withdrawing himself he leaves her to face the enormity of her crime alone. And this drives her mad.
In this production, there is little sense of this emotional withdrawal. After the failed banquet, when the king and queen sit down to their own desultory meal (imaginary, of course - no props!), we feel the strain between them (the distance across the table accomplishes much of this). But I was more struck by how close the two principals remained to one another, even in their moments of recrimination. This was brought firmly home by a very strange bit of staging toward the end of the play. Macbeth begs the doctor to physic his wife’s diseased mind. Of course, he can do nothing, and she dies, by her own hand, offstage. In this production, though, Lady M is onstage throughout, sitting on one of her crates, gazing up, stupidly but lovingly, as if drugged or lobotomized, at her husband’s face as he caresses her face with his hands. A scream from the flies, and she is dead. But neither she nor he even notice. They just go on staring into each other’s eyes, until Macbeth is told the news. Where usually the crime drives Macbeth and his Lady apart, here it has brought them together, strangely. One senses, in the end, that the crime was all they had, that they did it, whether they knew it or not, in order to bind them to one another. Which is just how a folie a deux works.
That’s the end of the play, in this production. With his Lady gone, Macbeth shrinks to nearly nothing. Keen’s reading of the “tomorrow” soliloquy was incoherent. The battle was “staged” only by comparison with the rest of the production. And Macbeth doesn’t even fight Macduff; he surrenders to him. As usual, he has nothing left to live for, but this Macbeth isn’t even interested in going down fighting. He has nothing left to kill for either.
Cheek by Jowl’s production read like a catalog of unexpected, even perverse choices. Most of these didn’t work - I can’t see any point to not staging the murders, for example - but some, like keeping Lady M on stage with her husband while she died elsewhere, were fascinating, even moving. My fear, though, is that you could not excise the successful choices from the unsuccessful ones. The production was of a piece. I understand, for instance, that they had a staging for the murders, and cut it because it didn’t work. Well, maybe it didn’t - maybe staging the play, showing us anything at all would puncture the incestuous balloon that the two principals breathed from together. But if that’s the case, it means that, while this might be a very interesting study of the character of the Macbeths, it cannot be a fully successful approach to the play as a whole.
* * *
It’s not entirely fair for me to call Sleep No More a production of Macbeth. Among other things, apart from the title I only heard one line from the play - “they say blood will have blood” - in the two and a half hours that I spent in the McKittrick Hotel. But whatever it is - and I’ll talk a bit below about trying to read Sleep No More as a production of Macbeth - Sleep No More is a theatrical experience that you don’t want to miss, if only because it’s like nothing else you’ve ever seen.
The folks from Punchdrunk have taken over a trio of Chelsea warehouses and outfitted them as the McKittrick Hotel, a noir-esque horror fantasia palace. When you arrive, you are given a playing card and a Venetian mask, and told not to lose the card, not to take off the mask, and not to speak until you leave the hotel (or take a break at the hotel bar). And then you are let loose to wander as you please through five floors of insanely outfitted rooms.
I’ll throw out a few illustrative examples of the insanity, just to give you the flavor, though no description really does justice to the experience. A hospital ward where all the beds are bathtubs. An enchanted, blue-lit forest of birch trees, inhabited by stuffed mountain goats and a mysterious cabin that seems to belong to the nurse from the hospital. A witch’s herbarium, the overpowering sensation upon entry not sight or sound but smell. The Macduff living quarters, a perforated teddy bear on the bed, a wall-sized mirror beside that, when you look in it, you see right through yourself to the bed behind … and on the sheets and covers gouts of blood that was not so before. (And, indeed, there’s no such thing; turn around and you’ll see, the bed is clean. I have absolutely no idea how they did it.)
You wander in and out of rooms, encountering your fellow masked ghouls as you enter, leave, search drawers and cabinets (there may be hidden messages scrawled therein), examine half-developed photographs of murder in Malcolm’s darkroom. You walk down the hallway and pass other ghouls typing a typewriter, ruffling through files, staring back at you from windows on a graveyard. The addition of actors is almost superfluous.
But not entirely. When you first see someone not wearing a mask, it’s almost a shock. A living being! We must follow him (or her) - we are hungry ghouls, and feed on the life force of the living. And they have quite a bit of life force. There’s almost no dialogue in the production, and most of the action takes the form of stylized and repetitive activity - some of it dance-like, some of it less-coherent writhing (which, truth be told, did little for me), but all of it aggressive. Even Duncan, who sleepwalks to his doom (I thought that was Lady M’s job?) does so with vigor, pulling the veils off endless ticking clocks as he staggers.
I caught several scenes that I could identify as being from the play. I followed Lady Macbeth to her bedroom (a large bed filled one corner, but the center of the room was dominated by a spot-lit bathtub on a podium), where she read the letter from her husband, then, when he arrived, danced the dance of the femme fatale before changing for the banquet to celebrate Duncan’s arrival. I followed her to that banquet, where we saw her dance coquettishly with the doomed Scottish king while her husband looked on, the other guests including a grossly pregnant Lady Macduff and her husband - and, strangely, a blonde bombshell who pulled off her wig and was transformed into a writhing bald witch.
Later, I encountered Duncan and his clocks. He sleep-walked his way through that room and out, into a hallway where cushions were laid out on the floor under a tented canopy, and there he lay himself to sleep. No drugged guards watched over him, and when Macbeth came, he did not stab, but smothered him with the pillows, feathers flying. Yet somehow he still got covered in blood, and Lady Macbeth had to strip him down to wash the stain away in her bathtub, only to taint herself instead. Much later, I ran into Macbeth racing upstairs, and turned to follow him to a witches’ sabbath: lit by a flashing strobe, two seminude female witches cavorted with a nude male minotaur, and nursed the bloody child of Macbeth’s second vision.
But other scenes seemed to have nothing to do with the source play. A lady in red right out of a pulp crime novel eats a meal at a cafe table, only to find something strange in her food. She worries it with her tongue, then spits it out: a wedding ring. She beckons one of the ghouls to approach, places it on his finger, and begins to sing - or, rather, lip-synch - a haunting and creepy cover (by a male voice I didn’t recognize) of Peggy Lee’s “Is That All Their Is.” A thematically apposite song for Macbeth if ever there was one, and a viscerally powerful scene. I, myself, was pulled into another scene, a one-on-one in the cabin in the woods with the nurse. When she gently removed off my mask, I was hyperventilating - I don’t know whether because I was afraid I would laugh, and break the spell, or because I was so fully in the moment that I was afraid of her, of being locked in this cabin in the woods with a mysterious witch nurse who was about to reveal to me secrets it were better I did not know. As it happened, she also told me a story of disillusion - about an orphan boy who tried to fly to heaven, only to discover that the moon, sun and stars were really rotten wood, a broken piss-pot and flying bugs. Objectively, not the most powerful story ever told, but in context, and told by a woman coming closer and closer to my face, until our noses were almost touching, it absolutely terrified me. I had to turn away and grab her arm - if I hadn’t, I don’t know if I would have kissed her or screamed.
As you can probably tell from my breathless descriptions, I’m a sucker for this sort of thing (not that I even know what “sort” of thing this is - I’ve never seen, been part of, more correctly, a show like this before). Effects that would be cheesy in a play or movie - blue-lit fog on a graveyard; a red-headed woman in a red dress and red lipstick singing a sad song - become electrified when you are in the movie, in the play. I wandered through the woods, genuinely afraid that the right road would be lost; it was trivially easy to forget that I was in a play. It was even easier to forget that I wasn’t in the play, that I was in the audience - my fellow audience members sure looked like they were in the cast, or at least part of the scenery.
As you can also probably tell, a great deal of the imagery derives from film. The period and many of the individual objects are clearly intended to recall classic film noir and Hitchcock. But I felt like the real guiding spirit of the enterprise was Kubrick, an amalgam of “The Shining" (blood, woods, typewriters with creepy messages and endless repetition of the same catchphrases of horror, but most of all just the experience of wandering endlessly in a horror hotel) and "Eyes Wide Shut" (the Venetian masks, obviously, but more generally the voyeurism of the whole enterprise - and I kind of thought Lady Macbeth was got up to remind us of Nicole Kidman). If you’ve never wanted to be trapped inside a Kubrick film, well, I can’t say I really blame you, but you don’t know what you’re missing.
But what, in the end, does it have to do with Macbeth?
Not much, and yet a great deal.
What’s lost from Macbeth isn’t just the language. It’s true that’s lost - but it’s also lost in what’s probably my most favorite production of Macbeth, Akira Kurosawa’s movie, “Throne of Blood" which, since it’s in Japanese, doesn’t have a single line from Shakespeare. Macbeth's language can be an inspiration for the visual imagination of an adapter, and if it is then the language isn't really lost at all, just transformed. A knowledgeable reader of the play will experience the connection between the vision and the text, will see what’s on the page, the text playing in his or her mind as a kind of remembered soundtrack.
But in Sleep No More, the story is also lost. I didn’t get a real sense of relationship between any of the characters - even between Macbeth and Lady M - from this production. Nor, even in isolation, did their characters feel sharply defined. This murderous pair, they weren’t individuals, they were icons - more specifically, icons out of film noir, playing out the scenes from Macbeth. This is a considerable reduction from Shakespeare. Lady Macbeth, for example, is a considerably more complex figure than a noir femme fatale - indeed, her character can be understood as, herself, reacting to that kind of iconic figure, trying to play out that role in order to achieve her goals. She’s a real person playing the part of a cold-hearted killer - that’s why she can be driven mad, as the classic noir women are not. (If those women have a weakness, it’s that they may have fallen in love with the men they are trying to dupe - or is that just another plot? Depends on the movie.) Shakespeare takes us on what looks like a familiar journey - man is tempted by evil forces/an evil woman, and is undone by his crime - but then takes us places we didn’t expect to go. (Macbeth achieves a kind of apotheosis of nihilism by the end - he stares into the abyss so long that the abyss has to look away.) By returning us to the archetypes that lie behind Shakespeare’s play, Sleep No More returns us as well to a more familiar story.
And yet, the production does achieve one thing that so many productions of Macbeth fail at. It brings us into the world of Macbeth’s imagination. Indeed, sitting in the McKittrick hotel bar after the show, I decided that this was the best way to look at the play: not as an enactment of the play Macbeth but as a tour of the character Macbeth’s mind, full of scorpions as it is (and I believe I saw some of those in the taxidermy room). Macbeth is not a terribly bright man - he never thinks more than one step ahead, and his first response is always brutally direct - but he has a powerful imagination. And so it seems appropriate to think of his mind as stuffed full of stock icons from horror and noir - bloody bathtubs, broken dolls, lip-synching women in red dresses and silent ghouls in Venetian masks - yet all rendered with astonishing vividness, and recombined to a total vision that is overwhelming in its power when experienced directly, unmediated, as the participating audience for Sleep No More does. A man whose mind was overwhelmed by these kinds of images, yeah, I could understand how he could turn into Macbeth. And if we really want to understand him, we need to see what he sees. Which this production enabled me to do as no other one has.
Finally, I noticed something interesting that brought the Cheek By Jowl Macbeth and Sleep No More - two productions that otherwise could not be more different - together. In both, Macbeth goes, in the end, passively to his death. In Cheek By Jowl’s production, Macbeth puts down his sword (well, his imaginary sword) and lets Macduff kill him. In Sleep No More, Macbeth is executed: hanged at the same table where the banquet scene plays out - the last image the audience sees before being herded out to the bar is of his swaying corpse. And he submits to the noose, if not exactly willingly, then knowing there is no way out. Neither Macbeth goes down fighting, and that, I think, is significant as a matter of psychological interpretation. These two Macbeths, we are so close to them, that we see enacted not what happens in the play but how they understand their action internally. In Shakespeare, Macbeth goes down swinging. But he does so after his apotheosis of nihilism. He knows, even as he kills, that there is absolutely no point to the killing - that not only is there nothing to be achieved, there is not even any satisfaction to be had. Macbeth does not shout “top of the world, Ma!” at his final moment of defeat. He just goes on. Inside, he has resigned himself to death.
It’s an interesting direction to go, but I wonder if it’s the most fruitful one. In a book I’ve been reading, Weyward Macbeth: Intersections of Race and Performance - which I hope to write about in this space when I’ve finished it - one of the chapters, about Frederick Douglass’s frequent quotation from the play, makes the point that Macbeth’s decision to fight, even after the impossible prophesies from the witches start coming true - Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane and all that - is an expression of pure freedom, of refusing to let his actions be controlled by his purported fate. This is one of the principal things that attracted Douglass to the figure of Macbeth, and, the chapter argues, a great part of what makes him tragically great. I’m not sure I agree with that analysis - it seems to me that Macbeth’s freedom, like his hard won wisdom about the meaninglessness of existence, is of a particular kind, and not a kind to be emulated or sought. But I do think that dramatizing passivity at his moment of death comes off as a kind of unearned plea for sympathy - unearned, and also untrue to the character. Macbeth may not be saying, “die all, die merrily” but he never begs us for sympathy - as, say, Edmund does in his dying moments in Lear. And I don’t entirely trust the instinct that sends us in that direction at the close of this incredibly dark play.