It appears that Broadway got the wrong “Macbeth.” On the same night that Kelsey Grammer’s production was opening to dismal notices in New York, the Royal Shakespeare Co. gave the first of about a dozen performances of its acclaimed new version of the tragedy as part of the New Haven Intl. Festival of Arts & Ideas.
Both productions are stark, dark and streamlined, both are performed in modern dress and without an intermission. But if the basic conceptions are similarly hued, there’s a world of difference in the execution. In contrast with Timothy Hands’ desiccated, lifeless Broadway version, Gregory Doran’s staging for the RSC’s “Macbeth” is full-blooded and intense, compellingly alive in virtually every scene.
It’s topped by a pair of riveting performances from Antony Sher and Harriet Walter as Shakespeare’s famously nefarious married couple. To see Sher’s blazingly, almost confusingly human Macbeth is to realize that there may be no connecting the psychological dots of this maddeningly complex character. Macbeth ricochets inconsistently between bloodthirsty acts and anguished reflection, but Sher’s jittery, mesmerizing performance makes both the bloodlust and the rhapsodic meditations seem to spring from the same roiling source as Macbeth’s military prowess and ambition: a hungry heart whose feverish beating won’t give him an instant’s rest.
Macbeth’s obsession with sleep has never seemed so heartfelt — Sher’s pop-eyed Macbeth looks like he’s been awake for months, permanently zonked on adrenaline to keep him battle-ready. Even in repose — as when Macbeth stands stock-still while King Duncan names his son as successor to the throne — Sher looks like he’s about to jump out of his skin. And Macbeth’s hysteria after killing Duncan is particularly finely rendered; it’s agony to watch.
Gradually, however, the blood begins to cool, with the turning point arriving in the unexpectedly poignant wake of the banquet scene. Here, Macbeth and his equally high-strung lady cling to each other in wretchedness and exhaustion, mutually and individually taking stock of the unraveling consequences of their murderous acts. From this point on, Macbeth devolves into a coldly calculating monster, whose vestiges of humanity appear only in Sher’s bleakly humorous line readings.
Lady Macbeth, ironically, moves in the opposite direction. The embrace at the close of the banquet scene seems instantly to infect Walter’s implacably driven Lady M. with her husband’s spectral visions — but also with his quickly evaporating humanity. She leaves the stage with candle in hand and, in one of the many felicitous linkings in Doran’s staging, when we next see her she’s still got the candle, but her rigid self-possession has deserted her.
Unhinged, she’s finally human. Walter’s sleepwalking scene is authentically haunting, not an actor’s showpiece but a vivid rendering of a soul in flight from imaginary terrors born of bottomless guilt. The words spill from her in terrified spurts, and her hands pick at her gown in fluttery, birdlike movements.
The supporting cast is almost uniformly steady and at ease with the verse, with Trevor Martin’s Duncan for once making the strong impression that he should. Doran’s staging puts the right emphasis on his regal but benevolent nature, making the horror of his murder resonate significantly. The production’s only major misstep concerns the inveterately tedious porter scene. Here, Stephen Noonan destroys the production’s breathless sense of tension — and reality — with audience-baiting shtick and some shameless Clinton jokes that must have sounded fresher to English ears.