Charles Laughton once said to Bette Davis, “Never stop daring to hang yourself.” This recklessly fearless approach to acting can be seen at Redcat’s black-box theater, where Stephen Dillane (2000 Tony winner for Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing”) stars in a one-man “Macbeth.” Director Travis Preston, artistic director of the Center of New Theater at CalArts, relishes pushing the boundaries, as evidenced by his 2002 all-female “King Lear.” But despite the actor’s efforts to show unchecked ambition in all its blood-soaked ugliness, he doesn’t differentiate clearly enough between the multiple characters – it’s a technically adventurous but unrealized experiment.
The barefoot Dillane, dressed in gray suit and maroon shirt, appears against a white wall, and the dirt-covered stage is a huge sandbox for a traumatized child to play in. As his devouring desire to be king is revealed after learning that King Duncan’s sons are slated for that position, Dillane complements the Shakespearean text with tortured body language. At various times, inventive director Travis Preston physicalizes his star’s portrait by encouraging him to crawl, squirm, slam his chest, tear at his shirt and stick his head in the sand like an animal hiding. Dillane does everything he can to unite with the character and Macbeth’s despair is palpable.
What comes across less powerfully is the man’s shattering evil. He doesn’t grow larger than life, and seems more neurotic and sensitive than truly insane. Dillane excels when fragmenting mentally in the face of Banquo’s threatening ghost, and his sudden theatrical leap into the crowd is unexpected and startling. This is one of the few times the presentation establishes a sense of horror, a horror that needs to be sustained more fully.
Dillane does better at portraying Duncan, Macduff and Malcolm than in playing Lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth is arguably a greater monster than her husband, and her goading is too muted; the voice Dillane employs to dramatize her lacks the necessary levels of malevolence. When he asks, “If we should fail?” and she answers, “But screw your courage to the sticking-place and we’ll not fail,” we feel the absence of a co-star more keenly than at any other time in the evening.
Benoit Beauchamp’s lighting adds a macabre touch to the production, and shadows constantly accompany Macbeth on the white wall, resembling distorted creatures with lives of their own.
A key element in creating the show’s somber, portentous atmosphere is Vinny Golia’s jazz trio. Using a contrabass flute, bass clarinet, electric guitar, tympani, drums and gongs, the group hums, drones and squeals, further underlining the dark tone. Skilled musicianship is evident, and sound designer Adam Howarth sees to it that instrumentation never overwhelms crucial dialogue. Yet the music would have greater impact if cues were more varied. The background does little to identify or individualize characters and situations, and in a show where one man assumes the burden of 32 roles, some distinct themes could have been helpful for clarification.
Dillane projects pathetic agony in his final speeches, and achieves eloquence in the famous “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage.” Such moments confirm that Dillane, if released from the tyranny of the one-man format, would be memorable in the role.