Nicholas Pennell’s got concepts. His Court Theatre Macbeth is heavy laden with concepts. Heavy, heavy laden. There’s a blocking concept and a scenic concept, a concept for the costumes and the witches and, of course, for that murderous Scotsman, Macbeth. Each concept’s precisely thought out and crisply presented. Some of them are quite interesting. Conceptually. But most of them don’t work. In fact, they just about sink this production under the weight of their irrelevance.
The most obvious and oppressive of Pennell’s concepts is the one that makes him treat each scene as if it were a tableau from Madame Tussaud’s. Everything’s so damn deliberate here. So painfully self-conscious. So tidy. Everybody stands around so stiff and straight up and static. And slow–as if, having been placed in one of Pennell’s neatly posed stage pictures, they couldn’t bear to leave it.
There’s an overwhelming sense of the vertical about Pennell’s blocking, his way of moving his cast around. Call it the Dance of the Stalagmites. When I think back on the opening scenes in particular, I find it hard to picture the actors even using their hands, much less touching. The impression of formality, angularity, and stasis is that strong.
Pennell’s idea, I suppose, was to create an atmosphere of decorum–of literal uprightness–against which his more chaotic gestures would resonate with a greater intensity. And sure enough, little moments like the one where Macbeth’s future victim, King Duncan, gives him a kiss–or the one where Macbeth greets Lady Macbeth by going down on his knees to her–are definitely conspicuous when they come up. But their conspicuousness isn’t shocking. It’s merely peculiar. Because the general air of inhibition around those moments is finally more powerful than they are. Likewise, in the play’s warlike final act, when the chaos–and therefore the horizontals–start to multiply, there’s still no overcoming Pennell’s wax museum inertia. Even the big deal swordplay at the end is dull.
And so, unfortunately, is Macbeth himself. I’ve seen Nicholas Rudall be sleek and malevolent as Goldberg in Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party; I’ve seen him be pestilential as Hamm in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. I guess I hoped his Macbeth would feed off the same ugly currents that made those performances so effective. But Pennell’s got him playing the ill-fated Thane of Glamis as a pussycat. A paunchy, mild-mannered middle-management sort of guy–a mama’s boy, basically–who finds himself getting deeper and deeper in a dark and bloody business, and who becomes dark and bloody in response.
Now that may sound pretty interesting, conceptually. A variation on the banality-of-evil theme–Mr. Nice Discovers the Abyss Within. Very apt to our times. Pennell’s program notes even quote the critic, Jan Kott, in apparent support of this approach: “But Macbeth, who has killed, is a new Macbeth. He not only knows one can kill, but that one must kill.”
Yet the concept, at least as it’s embodied by Rudall, doesn’t work. Shakespeare is explicit about Macbeth’s violence, picturing him as an energetic butcher who, “with his brandished steel . . . unseamed” his unlucky adversaries “from the nave to th’ chops.” This Macbeth may be a patriot or a fool, a sadist, a simpleton, or an intriguer–but he can’t be the bland old softy who shows up for act one at the Court.
The consequences of Pennell’s misreading become most obvious at the worst times. Macbeth’s parched, potentially devastating speech on the death of his queen (“Life . . . is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing”) flits by without effect. His rage as nature herself seems to turn against him comes across as the annoyance of an executive on an especially bad day.
Pat Bowie’s capable of a great, fierce Lady Macbeth–which makes her weepy one here that much more frustrating to watch. Shoved in among all the other exploding concepts of this production, Bowie’s performance is so isolated and out of whack as to be completely incomprehensible.
As is Maureen Gallagher’s, as Lady Macduff. A juicy small role that seems to exist mainly to be a juicy small role, it nevertheless falls flat in the land of a thousand stalagmites. Still, I guess falling flat’s preferable to getting impaled, the way Daniel Oreskes does attempting to play Macduff. John Nicholson, meanwhile, makes Duncan’s heir, Malcolm, a total wimp–the George Bush of medieval Scotland.
A few things work. Laurence Russo’s Banquo, for instance. Solid, strong, tough, and clear, Russo’s especially good at conveying the natural authority Banquo exercises over his son. His gentle, confident expectation of obedience. I’d love to see him play Macbeth.
Pennell’s treatment of the three “weird sisters”–the witches who counsel Macbeth into an early and unhallowed grave–also works. Pennell distinguishes each witch’s function, rather than viewing them as the usual, monolithic lump o’ evil. He also insinuates them into the action in interesting ways, making them spectral servants in Macbeth’s cursed household. Virginia Harding’s pale sister is rendered, fascinatingly, as a child oracle–like the hermaphrodite in Fellini’s Satyricon. Tanya White’s bare-breasted sister has the serene beauty of an African princess. And Jamie Baron’s bearded sister–the manwich, as it were–serves as a twisted den mother to the others.
Finally, though Jeff Bauer’s prissy, constrictive costumes contribute mightily to the wax museum ambience of the show, his ingeniously tricky set nearly redeems it toward the end. Nearly, but not quite. Which is tragic.