Signifying Nothing: Jack O’Brien’s Awful “Macbeth”

I don’t know if it’s just Lincoln Center’s production of it, or if I’m suddenly awakening to how I feel, but I’m unclear as to why Macbeth is such a lauded play, so much so that it’s had multiple major commercial productions this year alone. Even if every monologue were as repeatable as “Is this a dagger” or “Out damn spot”–sorry, John Glover, but I still don’t get the Porter’s palate-cleansing speech–the show would still suffer from an inert plot, which basically hams up a history play with the interventions of three witches (and Hecate). The front-loaded first act at least focuses on the corruption of a hero, with Macbeth betraying a comfortable life on the supposition that he could theoretically have more (although, as we’ll see, that doesn’t mean that he’ll do better), and with Lady Macbeth playing the Eve to his once-innocent Adam, helping him to get his hands apple-red first with the king’s blood and then his friend Banquo’s. But from there, it all falls apart, with Lady Macbeth abruptly going mad–after so easily being the villainous rock–and Macbeth himself growing so one-dimensional with his arrogant that his more interesting regrets simply fall to the wayside, buried, presumably, in the same unmarked grave as Banquo.

The abruptness of these moments are exacerbated by O’Brien’s image-heavy and larger-than-life direction (sets courtesy of Scott Pask): the little things are what should matter, and instead, by getting all operatic in scale, things simply happen. Macduff’s family is murdered; Macduff mourns the loss and swears revenge; prophecies are fulfilled; characters run on and off stage in a hurry; it’s theater-by-numbers. (This is especially apparent in the obviously rehearsed swordfight between Macduff and Macbeth.) It throws the actors for a loop, too: not only have they been inconsistently cast (in terms of talent), but they’re all attempting to outdo one another–and the sets, which is a losing proposition all around. None of the play actually means anything; there are no lessons to be learned, no big picture ideas to take away. If there were characters, they’re hidden behind pomp and circumstance–and I’m not talking merely of O’Brien’s larger-than-life direction; the script seems fatuous, which is not something I ever expected to feel about one of Shakespeare’s immortal works.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons I’m so against revivals–for me, at least, they appear to diminish the effect of a work. Which is not to say that they shouldn’t be done, especially to introduce younger audiences to a master playwright, but merely that enough must be done with the interpretation to justify otherwise blathering on. (For instance: I’d see Ivo van Hove put his mark on just about anything, and Sleep No More offers a more intimate/personal Macbeth.) Short of witchcraft, I can think of no other way to explain my sudden distaste for all things Macbeth.

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