The night, says Lady Macbeth, is “almost at odds with morning,” which is nothing compared to viewing such an infernal and darkness-obsessed play amid the al fresco environs of Shakespeare’s Globe at a (mostly) sunny matinee. Tim Carroll’s production came in for a pretty serious critical clobbering early in June, and there’s no doubt that it can’t match the elegant “Cymbeline” that has since concluded this summer’s Globe lineup. (I haven’t yet caught Julian Glover’s Lear, the season opener.) But seen nearly two months after opening night, this “Macbeth” shows very real signs of getting its creative house in order, thanks in no small part to a 10-day re-rehearsal during which some 30% of the production — by its own lead’s estimation — was tweaked or overhauled.
Sure, some of Carroll’s directorial flourishes still give cause for concern, not least the utterly un-threatening assemblage of tuxedoed swells seemingly stuck for keeps on the cabaret-cocktail party groove. (To that end, Claire van Kampen’s music is so much Duke Ellington redux.) And yet, both stagings give the lie to the assumption gathered over time that the Globe plays it safe. For all its eccentricities, this “Macbeth” conveys the charge that goes with watching two fiercely intelligent actors — Jasper Britton and Eve Best — in fluent command of a difficult text. At the same time, Mike Alfreds’ staging of “Cymbeline” subjects this potentially most lunatic of Shakespeare plays to a clarity that, in a play about wonder (“I am amazed with matter” is a fairly representative remark), is itself wondrous to behold.
A notoriously knotted tale, “Cymbeline” would seem ill-matched to Alfreds’ aesthetic, which disseminates a dizzying array of parts (two rival armies included) across only six performers. That they are identically clad in white leisure suits — the cast look more like participants in a yoga class than Elizabethan players — amplifies the potential for confusion, though that would be to underestimate the protean skill of a company that finds variety in gesture, tone and affect, if not apparel.
Even if the actors didn’t launch the play by announcing their multiple tasks, there would be little chance of mistaking Mark Rylance’s puffed-up, xenophobic Cloten — loutish stepson to Cymbeline, the British king — with the same performer’s teary Posthumus, husband to Imogen (a lilting Jane Arnfield), the king’s daughter who had been intended for Cloten. Being Globe a.d., Rylance inevitably knows how to work its tricky auditorium better than just about anyone, and even his riper moments (“testi-ness,” he says, dividing the word with a deliberate double entendre, grabbing his crotch) serve an aesthetic that can shift on a dime from bawdiness to bemusement. Just like the play, in fact.
“Cymbeline” walks a familiar Shakespearean path of falsehood, disguise and coincidence on the path to reconciliation (“Does the world go round,” concludes the King in classic Bardic understatement), though not even this author made a habit of folding into the mix decapitation, appeals to Jupiter and the odd encounter in a cave deep in the Welsh mountains. Alfreds’ triumph is to honor the absurdity of the material while never undermining it. Employing scant scenery beyond a backdrop of musical instruments (two percussionists complete the crew of performers), this “Cymbeline” possesses something of Peter Brook’s talent for distillation: In its unconventional way, it couldn’t seem more enduringly truthful.
“Macbeth” is a far better-known play, though, in my experience, almost never as well done, perhaps because the psychotic terrain it occupies defies easy visual representation. (A really audacious “Macbeth” might occur in total blackness.) To that end, Carroll was right to eschew the usual stage trappings — piles of gore, for instance — in favor of an abstraction that substitutes gold tinsel for blood, with the Scottish Thane’s eventual accession to kingship signaled by Britton simply donning a royal cummerbund.
The intention, clearly, is to move away from the received wisdom and campy effects that have accrued over time to a play so steeped in the supernatural that it doesn’t always translate readily to our skeptical age. This time around, the “weird sisters” — two of them male, actually — are a jivey trio who cut a rug while Macbeth and his Lady embark upon separate but equal collapse, culminating in an “I have lived long enough” from the title character that comes steeped in spiritual enervation.
Those who know the play shouldn’t be perturbed by the doubling of Macduff and his doomed son or by the chairs that the cast toss over their shoulders like so many knapsacks. At other times, the text just won’t bend to Carroll’s caprice: Forsaking swords for feathers (!) looks merely featherbrained. But watch Best laugh and then cry out in alarm as her husband voices the possibility of failure, and listen as Britton, in turn, slides casually and deftly in and out of the speeches, the soliloquies never devolving into bloated set pieces. The carapace may be eccentric, to put it mildly, but this “Macbeth” has an admirable core that comes from two gifted actors moving fearlessly through Shakespeare’s most feral play.