The title character of “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is unequivocal: “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it was done quickly.” Director Yaël Farber begs to differ. She takes one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays, which usually runs around two hours, and, adding everything from a dumb show, an onstage cellist lamenting throughout, the stage flooding with water and a very great deal of pausing, brings it in at just over three. Led by James McArdle and Saoirse Ronan, the cast is fiercely committed and there are undeniably electrifying moments but, sadly, when Macbeth’s line “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” arrives, it’s hard not to wince.
Although McArdle may currently be most famous for his affecting performance as the compromised priest in “Mare of Easttown,” his stage credentials are impeccable, most notably his Louis in Marianne Elliott’s National Theatre and Broadway revival of “Angels of America.” In the latter, turning Louis’ lengthy monologue of political analysis into a dramatic tour de force, he more than proved his ability to express not just complex argument but the self-revealing subtext beneath — which makes him powerful casting for Shakespeare’s anti-hero.
Macbeth is, initially, the least imaginative of men, little given to introspection. After all, he takes the advice of the witches entirely at face value. But by following the encouragement of his ambitious wife (Ronan) and hurling himself into action, he is gradually overtaken with burgeoning horror and fear. When he says “full of scorpions is my mind,” it’s entirely believable. That’s the dominant element of McArdle’s performance, which is the highlight of the show.
As the character struggles and fails to keep a rein on his feelings, McArdle’s emotions fire up the language. Watching a fearless actor savagely playing a fearful man is fascinating, but that level of performance brings its own dangers. Seeing the blood-strewn ghost of Banquo, the man he has recently had killed, McArdle’s eyes blaze and, as he jackknifes and crawls terrified and screaming about the stage, both the onlookers and audience are appalled.
But this is an extreme height to hit when we’re barely halfway through the play, and it means that by the final act he is roaring. The trouble with that is that shouting dulls the audience response and completely generalizes what is being said. Individual words and phrases are robbed of specific meaning: All you hear is rage.
Worse, it sets a tone for the rest of the company, who emulate his emotional register. Too many wind up with their veins standing out on their necks, yelling. That achieves a similar decibel count but little subtlety. When Macduff discovers the murder of his children, Shakespeare’s repetitive syntax alone shows the character’s confusion as he’s faced with the unthinkable. That confusion is entirely absent here, replaced here with a display of utter fury which is initially impressive but scarcely upsetting.
The extreme temperature level comes in contrast to the pacing which, throughout, is almost preternaturally slow. It’s an attempt at clarity but although Farber has seemingly encouraged the actors to finesse and emphasize individual thoughts on each beat of the text, she hasn’t directed them to put all that back together again. This exaggerated effect comes at the expense of anything approaching forward momentum.
Instead, she underscores the inaction. Skilled lighting designer Tim Lutkin fills the space with haze throughout and adds more lighting than Walmart for maximum bleak chills amid the doom. But whether it’s the addition of the cellist intoning Tom Lane’s sustained low notes and his added, beautifully sung song of pained mourning, or Peter Rice’s scraping, doom-laden soundscape replete with stings and thunderclaps, Farber’s ever-present control of how the audience should feel hits the law of diminishing returns. This is slow-motion theater of display, but the more production effects pile up, the less effective they become at elucidating the play.
Before rinsing her blood-stained hands beneath the lone faucet at the edge of the stage and lying stretched out in the pool of water gradually flooding the set, Ronan brings a china-like fragility and determined quality to Lady Macbeth. Although she is physically at ease with McArdle and ultimately affecting, her casting seems off since this young-looking 27-year-old seems more like a new young bride than Shakespeare’s pained, childless wife.
Amid the gruff, grey-clad soldiers and courtiers, Akiya Henry stands out in every way with an easy, enviably light touch as Lady Macduff. Before her protracted, savagely staged murder, she brings detailed warmth to both the language and her relationships.
The self-consciousness of the production’s steady determination to over-illustrate every moment will bring some audiences to their feet. But the while the overall effect is defiantly theatrical, it’s distinctly less than dramatic.