The Nation, February 19, 1990, Vol. 250, No. 7, P. 249
by Thomas M. Disch
I have never much liked Macbeth. Its tragic leads have nothing to recommend them but their eloquence. Both are unrelievedly wicked, without even Richard III's wit or political horse sense. They inhabit a world that is, for Shakespeare, singularly colorless. The minor characters get involved in the plot only as victims or, finally, as revengers. The supernatural element is sophomoric, an excuse for special effects. The Christopher Plummer/Glenda Jackson production that appeared on Broadway in the spring of 1988 confirmed for me my distaste for the play; it was listless, overproduced and as perfunctory as a Latin high mass performed by a drowsy priest.
The new Macbeth at the Public Theater solves or smooths over the objections posed above. Raul Julia's Macbeth is a proper tragic hero, not simply a humor-impaired villain in the starring role. Some large part of the credit for this must belong to the director, Richard Jordan (better known in New York as an actor), who has plaited a large cast's disparate energies into a single emotional tightrope. One watches Macbeth's every step with unwavering suspense, even with a strange kind of empathy--not with his early vacillations or his later bouts of melancholy but with the strand in his behavior that makes emotional sense both of the gore and the witches, folderol. Raul Julia's Macbeth is a man who surrenders, deliberately, to the lure of madness who is willing (but finally unable, and there's the tragedy) to pay the price of his sanity for the energy the witches make available to him. At first his wife is notably his superior in daemonic power, but once the crown is his, he begins to revel in his power, to kill for the sheer fun of it, wantonly. The scenes in which this becomes most evident (and very scary) are those when he recruits Banquo's murderers with an almost lascivious camaraderie, and when he revisits the witches and drinks their hellbroth, whereupon a small part of hell breaks loose. His drugged vision of Banquo's posthumous triumph, usually so tedious, is all the more powerful because it forgoes a trumpery pageant. There is even, because of the disparity between Macbeth's exaltations and the tawdry circumstances, a gruesome kind of irony that offers a fair tradeoff for the humor that enriches the other three major tragedies.
To do full justice to the production I would have to annotate most of the program's credits, beginning necessarily with Melinda Mullins, whose Lady Macbeth seems barely older than most Juliets. The dynamics of a May/September marriage are well suited to the plot. Mullins is most interesting in Lady Macbeth's public moments, when, whether she is feigning hysterical grief over Duncan or smirking on her throne, she is as little to be believed as Nancy Reagan on her knees in prayer.
William Converse-Roberts is a clarion tongued Macduff and doubles as the Captain who bears news of Macbeth's victories to Duncan; it is up to him by sheer brass of voice and bearing to create a heroic image of Martial Virtue, which he does superbly. He also summons some tears in the scene of mourning for his wife. After his showing in this and in the earlier Love's Labor's Lost (for which he won an Obie), Converse-Roberts ought to be allotted one of the remaining plum roles of the Marathon. He may be the most accomplished "Shakespearean" the Shakespeare Festival has.
The set by John Conklin is a wooden corral with lawn furniture that got trundled on and off and a Mother Courage-type cart for the witches, provisions. The costumes by Jeanne Button are serviceable though scarcely (Lady Macbeth must have reflected) worth killing for. Peter Nels' fight choreography is good clean fun-not breathtaking but one felt that the actors were earning their pay. One or two of the attendant lairds might show a little more spirit, but that is probably always the case with attendant lairds. Harry S. Murphy as the Porter actually provokes some mirth, a rare accomplishment. Mary Louise Wilson is all the more scary as the First Witch for being quite funny as well, and Larry Bryggman as Banquo leads a splendid posthumous existence. The banquet scene, done without trickery, is altogether the most horripilating I've seen, and my companion (a veteran of many Macbeths, including Olivier's) felt the same. He also agreed that the production as a whole registered higher readings on his emotional Richter scale than any of the competition.
I add his testimony to my own because the New York critical consensus has not favored the production. Can it be (as Joseph Papp sometimes seems to believe) that the critics simply have it in for his theater? Or is there an expectation that Shakespeare, like grand opera, should be an occasion for spectacle? Do people need some manifest oddity to spell out a director's message? Frank Rich began his review in The Times with reflections on the fate of Romania's Ceausescus and the play's eternal relevance to such as them. Perhaps that is the difficulty the critics had--that they wanted the play to be about them, those wicked Macbeths and Ceausescus and Perons and Marcoses. The Public Theater's Macbeths may have been too much like people closer to home.
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