Rightly adhering to the view that the inner drama of “Macbeth” is of equal if not greater importance to the bloody trail of murder that marks his ascension and ultimate undoing, Liev Schreiber delivers an astutely considered take on the central questions surrounding the Scottish usurper: Is Macbeth guided or ruled by his ambition? Is he the agent or the victim of his fate? Is he in full possession of his faculties or so punch-drunk on war that lucid rationality has abandoned him from the start, leaving the once-noble warrior helpless prey to portents and spooks — not to mention his controlling climber of a wife?
The complexities behind Macbeth’s surrender to evil and to overpowering destiny are compellingly embodied in Schreiber’s contained performance but less so in other aspects of Moises Kaufman’s intermittently forceful Shakespeare in the Park production. It takes more than a commanding lead to make this most brutal and brisk of tragedies resonate fully.
Paired with the upcoming “Mother Courage” in August, the Public’s dual summer offerings are being presented under the banner of “War.” That theme is evident starting with the pre-show, as actors in military garb brandishing weapons pace a stage skirted in rubble while bagpipes, drumbeats, political announcements and explosions populate a densely ominous soundscape.
The war motif pays off in a gorgeous final-act visual coup, in which the decaying, cobalt-blue walls of Derek McLane’s set pull away to reveal the lush green of Central Park behind them. Fulfilling the witches’ prophecy, Birnham Wood advances on Dunsinane as backlit troops march uphill onto the stage. But elsewhere, the thematic concept yields little and feels almost arbitrary. “Macbeth” might be bookended by wars but it’s not about war. In fact, war is entirely incidental to the play’s central issue of ambition.
While the 1930s setting clearly evokes a world in the grip of conflict, from the first scene the contextualization feels like an imposition. Perhaps it’s the overplayed Iraq connection, but as the three “weird sisters” stalk the stage in faded camouflage uniforms, their presence is robbed of the creepy supernatural element that can get “Macbeth” off to such a chilling start.
However, Kaufman is a director who invariably puts a bold stylistic imprint on his work, and this foray into Shakespeare is no exception. While the first act ambles unduly without the necessary drive, the drama becomes more propulsive in the bloodier second act, its intensity spiraling as the dead stack up and often linger onstage to haunt the protagonist.
A number of the play’s set pieces are staged to bracing effect. McLane deftly utilizes a circular central platform that elevates to become a royal dais for newly crowned Macbeth, a banquet table and the witches’ cauldron spewing forth apparitions. An odd segue from the freshly murdered Banquo and the witches in a deathly procession to the jazz-age strains of the Macbeths’ party is neatly done, the climactic civil war is staged with balletic grace and Macbeth’s tormented vision of seven kings trailed by Banquo’s ghost has rarely been so arresting.
The main attraction, of course, is Schreiber, whose clear, classical delivery and Orson Wellesian intonations place him in the top tier of American Shakespeare interpreters. The actor’s line readings can be almost flip at times — “Thanks for that,” when news of Banquo’s murder reaches him; or “The deed is done,” after he slays Duncan — amusingly underplaying the gravity of his actions. But when Schreiber utters the line “Macbeth shall sleep no more,” the character’s darkest thoughts are triggered; he seems aware from that moment that his fate is sealed.
Not for the first time with this play, it’s in the brooding, intimate soliloquies and not the fiery flashes that the performance is most captivating. Providing a sustained glimpse into Macbeth’s mind full of scorpions, Schreiber plays much of the role in a semi-trance, possessed at various times by greed, fear, weakness and a misguided sense of invulnerability.
The doomed antihero has a glam ice queen in Jennifer Ehle’s Lady Macbeth, and the sexual chemistry between her and Schreiber adds spark to their scenes. Looking like she’s stepped out of the pages of a vintage movie magazine, Ehle works hard to override her natural softness; she plays the role about a decade later than Kaufman’s time frame, coming across like a steely ’40s film noir manipulatrix. The approach works even if Ehle is more persuasive when summoning “direst cruelty” to galvanize her wavering husband to action than when later succumbing to her own demons.
It’s when both the Macbeths are offstage that the energy dissipates. As is often the case with the Public’s park outings, indifferent ensemble casting weighs on the overall impact, particularly in the inadequate Banquo of Teagle F. Bougere and Sterling K. Brown’s Macduff. These are nothing, however, compared with Florencia Lozano’s overwrought Lady Macduff, a good argument for swifter daggers.
Lynn Cohen also lathers it on with a jarring comic routine in the Porter’s scene, an often tedious interlude, here belabored with winking contempo references. As the witches, Cohen, Joan MacIntosh and Ching Valdes-Aran could have benefited from less dispersive placement around the stage; their lack of physical unity dulls the trio’s eerie force. Best of the supporting ranks is Jacob Fishel’s calmly self-assured Malcolm.
Regardless of the cast’s varying effectiveness, they deserve credit — as does the audience — for remaining focused through the entire play on the first press night despite steady rain during much of the performance. Even more than the bagpipes, the misty veil that hung in the air and fell in the beams of light evoked Scotland.