by Carol Rocamora
I still can’t get used to it.
The Shakespearean tragedy known as “the Scottish play” – whose name we dared not utter for fear of incurring the wrath of the theatre gods – is now the one most frequently revived in New York and London. I count almost a dozen Macbeths who’ve murdered their way across our stages over the past two decades – including Patrick Stewart, John Douglas Thompson, Ethan Hawke, Alan Cumming and Kenneth Branagh. And don’t forget the long-running horror show “Sleep No More,” still frightening folks at the McKittrick Hotel on the West Side. (There’s even a musical comedy version called Scotland, Pa., now playing at Roundabout’s Laura Pels theatre.)
So Macbeth is “the new Hamlet,” in terms of its popularity and frequency of production. Evidently it’s a reflection of the “zeitgeist” – the perilous times in which we live.
I suppose, then, it was inevitable that the murderous Thane would show up at the Classic Stage Company. Artistic Director John Doyle is an astute practitioner of political theatre, and in a season paired with Sondheim’s Assassins, the statement he’s making about tyranny and violence rings loud and clear.
As anticipated, Doyle’s Macbeth is a pared down, minimalist version – somber, dark, ominous – clocking at 100 minutes. Doyle surrounds his audience with an ensemble of shadowy figures who serve as a chorus of witches – a signature choice of this innovative director. They float across the bare stage, in and out of the many exits, up and down from the balcony – to the extent that you feel you’re steeped in an immersive theatre experience. You don’t need a smoke machine or other scenic bells-and-whistles to feel the atmosphere in a Doyle-directed production.
“To beguile the time, look like the time,” says Doyle’s Macbeth. And he does. Corey Stoll suits the bill – towering, over-confident, entitled. His performance is well sculpted, building after the murder scene of Duncan, intensifying till it catches on fire during the banquet scene when Banquo’s ghost appears, and descending into madness by the time he faces the ultimate battle (“Tomorrow, tomorrow, and tomorrow,” Stoll’s strongest rendering of Macbeth’s soliloquies).
As for his partner in crime, Nadia Bowers (Stoll’s off-stage wife, too) is glamorous and dangerous, dominating the pair with ease. Her opening soliloquy – “The raven himself is hoarse” – is full of passionate intensity (to borrow Yeats’s phrase). The scenes in which they plot and execute the murders (“Was the hope drunk wherein you dressed yourself?) crackle with electric energy, and Lady M’s scornful rebuke of her husband (“Infirm of purpose, give me the daggers”) clearly shows who’s in charge. Together, they’re an attractive and believable power couple.
Doyle directs his gender-fluid ensemble with a sure, swift hand, and each character is finely etched. Mary Beth Peil is an imposing Duncan, N’Jameh Camara is an affecting Lady Macduff, Raffi Barsoumian is a charismatic Malcolm, and Barzin Akhavan’s lament as the grieving Macduff is deeply moving. Thomas Schall’s fight direction is especially impressive in the final confrontation when Burnham Wood inevitably comes to Dunsinane. Additional cast members include Barbara Walsh, Erik Lochtefeld and Antonio Michael Woodard.
In the end, this Macbeth belongs to the ensemble. “When shall we meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain?,” they chant at the play’s close, repeating the witches’ opening lines. This bold, final stroke suggests that Doyle’s Macbeth is a ritual to be performed over and over – “ a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
It’s an apt description for our Thane of today, wouldn’t you say? Doyle’s Macbeth is a warning, if ever there was one (“alas, poor country, almost afraid to know itself”) and a chilling prophecy for our times. “Bleed, poor country, bleed…” – indeed.
Photos: Joan Marcus
Macbeth, by William Shakespeare, directed and designed by John Doyle, at Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, through December 15.