Ralph Fiennes Sidles His Way Into Power as Macbeth

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Simply getting to the almost totally sold-out monster hit “Macbeth” in Washington, D.C., which has already been staged in Liverpool, London, and Edinburgh, contains its own, particular adventure. Produced in the capital by the Shakespeare Theatre Company, which has two venues in D.C., the show is actually being mounted offsite, in an old television soundstage, basically a cavernous concrete hangar in one of the city’s industrial stretches. (This is perhaps why New York doesn’t get a stop on the “Macbeth” tour—our theatrical stock is insufficiently gritty.) Outside, audience members negotiate a wilderness of warehouses and big-box parking lots; inside, we spend time in a maze of dark, clubby rooms made luxe with velvety drapes. Finally, we walk to our seats via a path through a hyperrealistic no man’s land: rubble, the sound of distant bombs, and a soldier with a thousand-yard stare, sitting in front of a burnt-out car beneath a stunned and flickering street light.

Even just that lone taste of immersion promises both sensation and intimacy. The director Simon Godwin (who is also S.T.C.’s artistic director and an associate director at London’s National Theatre) delivers on the latter: the purpose-built theatre inside the more than forty-thousand-foot studio is actually relatively small, so the play’s stars—Ralph Fiennes as Macbeth and Indira Varma as his Lady—seem quite close. Both actors are also familiar, and come cloaked in associations of unalloyed evil and political homicide, respectively. Fiennes was nominated for an Oscar for his role as the Nazi Amon Göth in “Schindler’s List,” and is feared by legions of moviegoers for his viper-faced Voldemort in the “Harry Potter” films; Varma played the scheming mother of the murderous Sand Snakes on “Game of Thrones.” Of course this slithering pair will team up to kill their liege, King Duncan (Keith Fleming), at the vague prompting of three fortune-telling witches.

Up-to-date military trappings have become de rigueur when stars take on Shakespeare: Daniel Craig donned army fatigues for an Off Broadway production of “Othello”; Florence Pugh did the same, in a televised adaptation of “King Lear,” as did Fiennes himself, in his own film of “Coriolanus,” from 2011. This production, with costumes designed by Frankie Bradshaw, is no exception, but here, Fiennes, playing the ambitious Scottish thane, wants us to think he’s unworthy of his combat boots. His obsequious, unmilitary physicality, particularly in the first hour and a half of the play, can be extreme: he sneaks and sidles; he rotates his arms so that they swing like a monkey’s; he keeps his shoulders high and tucks his hips, appearing to recede even as he moves forward. In a company full of ramrod-straight spines, his convex slump makes him look like the one guy who hasn’t gone through basic training. (Maybe he had bone spurs?) Some of his intentionally strange performance is poor stagecraft: Godwin allows Fiennes to occasionally mime his lines, to a sometimes ridiculous degree. When Macbeth, whose guilt is making him insomniac, bemoans the loss of “sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care,” for example, Fiennes helpfully indicates his own sleeve. At least he didn’t mime “sleep.”

To misquote the wrong Shakespeare play, there’s method in much of this madness. Fiennes’s weedy Macbeth is no alpha, but nonetheless he gets what he wants. Nearly half a millennium after Shakespeare’s death, we still recognize the trend of absurd, unqualified leaders who accept the reins of power from sleepwalking aristocrats. In Washington, in an election year, one’s thoughts on that topic form an extra drumbeat underneath the text. Godwin’s contemporary interpretation seems to lean toward Russia—the doomed King Duncan wears fur on the collar of his royal greatcoat—and when Duncan passes by bluff, capable Banquo (Steffan Rhodri) to reward oily Macbeth for putting down a rebellion, it immediately seems suspicious. Is this how Duncan maintains power? Putin reportedly promotes weak men; perhaps, we think, Duncan does, too.

Godwin’s political reading is savvy, but the famously magical elements of the play don’t always seem to have the full force of his attention. The witches who corrupt Macbeth’s ready mind, wearing bleach-stained overalls and fingerless gloves while lounging about on the set’s faux-concrete stairs, for instance, look less like “midnight hags” than bored art students. The sound designer Christopher Shutt does fill the air with eerie screeches and compositions by Asaf Zohar that go heavy on the spooky strings, but so much reliance is placed on these atmospheric elements that they grow obtrusive. The Macbeths’ palace at Dunsinane is represented as a fancy brutalist condo—the set, with gray stairs leading to frosted glass doors, was also designed by Bradshaw—and in one underwhelming attempt at spectacle, a trickle of red-tinged water drips down its walls. What was probably envisioned as a tide of blood just looks like a problem with rising damp.

The performances Godwin elicits from his actors are more daring. Varma’s Lady Macbeth is brusque and goal-oriented, capable of bustling her sometimes balky spouse into action. She’s not overtly malevolent but, rather, she’s a real housewife intent on getting tasks—kill a king, order a crown—ticked off her checklist. (Varma’s touch with the language is exquisitely deft; she lets us see the moment her slow-moving conscience finally catches up to her too-efficient haste.) Godwin is offering a “banality of evil” reading of the gory old tragedy, which requires his leads to shuck off a great deal of their movie-star majesty. When Hannah Arendt was writing about the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, she noted that the Nazi war criminal “was genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché.” His mind, she saw, had been smoothed by little sayings that allowed him to excuse his own monstrosity. Macbeth, having met the witches in what is surely the most astonishing encounter of his life, says, “Come what come may / Time, and the hour, runs through the roughest day.” Audaciously, Godwin and Fiennes interpret Shakespeare’s aphorism as the kind of meaningless cant that lubricates a man’s internal slide toward murder. At last, when Fiennes reaches the banquet scene at the play’s midpoint, and we see his nervous attempts at playing both gracious host and confident king, all his weird, capering, Ed Grimley-style anxiousness clicks into place. Ah, of course. Even after the four-star generals quit the cabinet, insecure clowns are the ones who will kill us all.

After intermission, the show gallops toward its ending. The adaptation, by Emily Burns, has cut a comic character and increased the number of defections from Macbeth’s administration, and Fiennes, as if shocked by his character’s loneliness, finally begins to deliver his speeches with simultaneous introspection and command. The culminating fights are fantastic, conducted not with swords but with machetes, which clang away in the smoky dark. So it’s odd that what I’ll actually remember from this blockbuster show is a moment of silence.

One of the puzzles of staging “Macbeth”—harder to solve than how to dress the witches—is the Macduff issue. Macduff (played here by Ben Turner) is one of Macbeth’s rough equals, another thane, but one who puts the interests of Scotland above personal ambition. Shakespeare reveals his villain-protagonist’s foil late in the plot: Macduff only stands out from a miscellaneous herd of Scottish lairds once Macbeth sends assassins after his family. Why should this be the guy to run Macbeth to earth and not, say, one of Duncan’s much aggrieved sons? To answer that question, Godwin finds a way to rebalance the play.

He does it entirely through timing. When, quite late in the drama, a man brings Macduff the news of his wife and children’s slaughter, Shakespeare gives the traveller an odd, misleading message to deliver: he first assures Macduff that his family is well, and then slowly, oblique phrase by oblique phrase, reveals that they are gone. Godwin has Turner stand stock still and silent, for what feels like minutes, as he takes in the information. He asks a clarifying question, then again falls silent. The ambient cello and night owls are quiet, for once, and the pace, at last, rests. Turner is nailed to the spot—“What, all my pretty chickens, and their dam / At one fell swoop?” Macduff plants himself like the steady leg of a compass, and the whole play must pivot around him. Agitated, scampering Macbeth doesn’t know it off in Dunsinane, but his headlong rush to power has been stopped, here, by one unmoving man. ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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