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In a new 'Macbeth,' something wonky this way comes
Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga in a preview of director Sam Gold’s production of “Macbeth” at the Longacre Theater in New York, March 28, 2022. Despite the star power of Craig and Negga, the overthought production seems unsure of its welcome, as if a classic that has enjoyed nearly 50 Broadway revivals since 1768 might no longer find an audience willing to meet it halfway, the New York Times theater critic Jesse Green writes. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Jesse Green

NEW YORK, NY.- Macbeth, the character, is full of compunction, as well he should be, having murdered a king to get to his throne.

But why should “Macbeth,” the play, be just as uneasy about its authority? Despite the star power of Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga, the overthought production that opened Thursday at the Longacre Theater seems unsure of its welcome, as if a classic that has enjoyed nearly 50 Broadway revivals since 1768 might no longer find an audience willing to meet it halfway.

I could understand that attitude if we were talking about the utterly unlovable “Troilus and Cressida.” But “Macbeth” is the most instantly accessible of Shakespeare’s tragedies: violent, elemental, familiar, short. No matter which way the story is bent, it maintains its recognizable human core of ambition and regret. Directors can emphasize its witchy aura, its bloodthirsty politics, its marital drama or its critique of masculinity without endangering its essential stageworthiness.

But this relentlessly analytical production, directed by Sam Gold, takes even that last quality apart, offering not so much “Macbeth” as a private inquest into it. To signal that, as the audience enters, it begins with the curtain half up, only timidly exposing the play to view. On a nearly empty black stage, the cast of 14 is milling about in what look like street clothes, seeming to make food at a communal table as if this were dinner theater, or not theater at all.

Gold then softens the transition from real life to drama by having Michael Patrick Thornton, who otherwise plays Lennox and one of the assassins, deliver an amusingly potted prologue like a Catskills tummler. His largely improvised spiel explains the play’s origins in a time of plague — around 1605 — and under the influence of King James’ obsession with the supernatural.

Good information. How did generations of theatergoers get along without it?

If you’ve seen enough of Gold’s Shakespeare — whether excellent (“Othello” at New York Theater Workshop, starring Craig and David Oyelowo) or inexplicable (“King Lear” on Broadway, starring Glenda Jackson) or in between (“Hamlet” at the Public Theater, starring Oscar Isaac) — you’ll know that he does not make idle or showy choices. His experimentation is always purposeful, even if, as here, it’s sometimes hard to know what that purpose is. For at least the first half-hour of “Macbeth” I thought he was trying to demystify the play by placing it in more familiar contexts.

That kitchen, for instance. Or the scenes set in what looks like someone’s TV room. (The “thrones” in Christine Jones’ set are raspberry-upholstered chair-and-a-halfs.) At other times, it seems we’re at a high school pep rally; when Scotland’s mortal enemy, Norway, is mentioned, Gold has the cast mutter “Boo!” as if at an opposing basketball team.

I’m not sure the play benefits from demystifying, though. Macbeth is no ordinary man, nor Lady Macbeth an ordinary woman. Their ambition and regret are extreme, and both alter extremely during the action. At first, when the witches tell Macbeth he will one day rule Scotland, he is horrified by the thought of what that means for the people in his way. But his wife is electrified; with her courage making up for his qualms, he kills Duncan (Paul Lazar) and takes the crown.

That is supposed to be the end of it, but, of course, it is not. As logic and a developing taste for blood demand, Macbeth now kills his comrade Banquo (Amber Gray). Although he goes mad with guilt, seeing ghosts over dinner and retribution in dreams, he nevertheless massacres the family of the suspicious Macduff (Grantham Coleman). It’s the macho Lady Macbeth who eventually quails and collapses; sucking renewed manliness from her death, Macbeth all but dares the world to incite his own.

Craig and especially Negga hit these marks clearly. We see how their characters’ chemistry and symbiosis allow each to fill the gaps of the other, at first for their mutual gain and then to their detriment. Craig is at his best in physicalizing Macbeth’s transitions; you can see in his bearing the effects of flattery and finery on his balloon personality. Had it not been inflated, it would never have burst.

Negga, unrecognizable both emotionally and bodily as the actor who played Hamlet at St. Ann’s Warehouse in 2020, is wonderfully physical, too; like a feral cat, she can seem quicksilver and weightless or, when enraged, menacing and bristly and twice her size. (The superb costumes by Suttirat Larlarb contribute to the effect, nearly telling the story on their own.) But Negga is also extraordinary with the verse, one of the few cast members who not only makes its meaning clear but also projects that meaning past the conceptual firewall Gold has erected.

Although the production too often feels as if it were designed for the company’s own edification — an endless rehearsal, rather than a Broadway revival — it is not without its outward-facing qualities, especially after the initial throat-clearing. There are beautiful, quietly observed moments: a glance between Craig and Negga, for instance, that says more about marriage than some entire plays on the subject. There are smaller characters crystallized in a flash: Lazar’s Duncan dainty and handsy, Maria Dizzia’s Lady Macduff heartbreakingly resolute.

But the top note here is gore, the more so because most other notes are muted. We see slit throats, amputated legs, huge spouts of blood and, for good measure, a gun. Even that cozy food table from the start of the show turns out to be the witches’ workshop, where they brew their disgusting potions — some involving human body parts pulverized as if by Julia Child with an industrial stick blender.

All this is accompanied by effects that put yet another demystifying frame on the action, this one not from life or theater but from movies. The fog at the Longacre is thicker than in “Casablanca.” The foreboding aural effects (sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman) recall slasher flicks; the screeching violins (music by Gaelynn Lea) more specifically reference Bernard Herrmann’s score for “Psycho.”

Perhaps to help us, or the cast, come down from all this, Gold concludes the show by having Bobbi MacKenzie, who otherwise plays a witch, sing a song by Lea called “Perfect” as the company slurps at what I hope to God is soup. The moment is lovely and would be fitting if this were, say, the finale of “Pippin.”

Still, at the end of an often-brutal Broadway season that was rightly concerned with harm and heartlessness — in which many shows, including this one, were bedeviled by illness and delays — I liked Gold’s showing us that in times of distress and violence people should remember to care for one another. If it has nothing to do with “Macbeth,” it has plenty to do with us.


Through July 10 at the Longacre Theater, Manhattan; Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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