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Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga in ‘Macbeth’: Theater Review


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Theatergoers may be understandably confused when they enter the Longacre Theatre to see the new Broadway production of Macbeth starring Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga. The stage is devoid of scenery, with the rear wall of the theater exposed. The actors, clad in street clothing, are milling around onstage, a few cooking a meal at one end. In the wings, more of them are standing around, chatting amiably. If you look closely, you can see Craig hugging one of them, whispering encouragement into her ear. Surely, we’ve wandered into a dress rehearsal by mistake?

Sadly, the answer to that question would be no. Instead, we’re there to witness the latest attempt by the maddeningly inconsistent director Sam Gold to infuse new life into a classic play. Perhaps we should have taken a hint from the production’s marketing, which prominently features the names of the stars and director while Shakespeare’s is nowhere to be seen. In retrospect, that seems appropriate, since this is far more Sam Gold’s Macbeth than the Bard’s.

Before the play begins, we’re treated to a folksy introduction by actor Michael Patrick Thornton, who plays Lennox. He provides some background information about the work we’re about to see, dropping its name in the process. “Oh, I guess I’m not supposed to say that,” he says sheepishly, referring to the “Scottish Play” curse, supposedly inflicted by some witches, that promises disaster to anyone who dares utter the play’s name in a theater. Thornton then ups the ante by inviting all of us to quietly repeat the title aloud as well, a request with which the audience mischievously complies.

If the director’s intent was to prove that the curse is alive and well, he thoroughly succeeds. Forget that the production was forced to cancel multiple performances because several of its actors, including Craig, tested positive for COVID. That unfortunate reality has afflicted numerous shows since theater resumed. Rather, it’s that this Macbeth proves so spectacularly misconceived and ineffective that you can practically hear witches cackling in the background. And I don’t mean the ones onstage.

It would be erroneous to report that the production suffers from a surfeit of bad ideas, because there are no ideas to be found. Rather, it’s as if the director had assembled his admirably diverse cast and told them to kick around some concepts and let him know what they came up with. Any audience members not intimately familiar with the play may come away thinking that this Shakespeare guy is seriously overrated.

Speaking of overrated, it may be time to add Gold to the list. While he’s done superb work with such new works as Fun Home, The Flick and A Doll’s House Part 2, his track record with the classics, particularly Shakespeare, leaves much to be desired. Although he delivered a taut, propulsive staging of Othello in a production also starring Craig a few years back, his productions of Hamlet, starring Oscar Isaac, and King Lear, with Glenda Jackson in the title role, were widely seen as disasters. This latest effort squarely falls into that latter camp.

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s shortest and least complex plays, but you wouldn’t know it from this production, which feels interminable. A program insert provides a plot synopsis and guide to what characters the actors are playing, which proves helpful since almost all of them double and triple in roles to utterly confusing effect. Don’t look for help from the generic costumes, which don’t so much suggest “modern dress” as “whatever the hell the performers felt like wearing.” A note from the production’s two dramaturgs advises us that this production’s “simplicity and flexibility, in which the play’s language carries most of the narrative and expressive weight, enable a high level of imaginative participation.”

It’s a nice theory, assuming that the actors are up to shouldering that expressive weight with their delivery of the language. Such is not the case, unfortunately. On paper, the casting of the two leads seemed a no-brainer. Craig delivered a superb, muscular performance as Iago in Gold’s Othello, and Negga proved riveting with her blazing take on Hamlet in a production seen at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse just before the pandemic. Both of them seem at sea here. Craig’s Macbeth mostly comes off as if he’s having a mildly troublesome mid-life crisis, and while he speaks the language effectively he displays little emotional connection to the words. When he delivers the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy, the phrase “sound and fury signifying nothing” has never felt more apt. Negga conveys little of her character’s ferocity and crazed ambition, coming across more like a ticked-off wife who’s had it up to here with her husband watching TV from the couch.

The supporting players don’t fare much better, although it may not be their fault since many of them have done terrific work in the past. Paul Lazar is a less than regal King Duncan, which makes his reappearance as the Porter after Duncan’s death not much of a stretch. Shedding his fat suit and clad only in his underwear, he pretends to get stranded in front of the lowered curtain and mutters “Oh, shit,” a sentiment with which the audience can heartily concur.

Asia Kate Dillon, so compelling in their tightly contained turn in Showtime’s Billions, makes little impression as Malcolm, save for a shock of bright purple hair. Of the rest, only Amber Gray (Hadestown) as a feminized Banquo and Grantham Coleman as Macduff manage to distinguish themselves.

To provide a suitably ominous atmosphere, many of the actors wander around carrying portable smoke machines, which prove woefully ineffective since we’re still able to discern what’s happening onstage. Gold also relies heavily on Gaelynn Lea’s horror movie-style music for creepy effect, although the shrieking chords when Macbeth stabs Duncan to death only make us wish we were watching Psycho instead. After committing one of his murderous deeds, a celebratory Macbeth cracks open a can of beer (light, of course; you don’t get that James Bond physique drinking the regular stuff), one of many anachronistic touches that just seem silly. But hey, what’s Macbeth without a few laughs?

There’s next to no scenery onstage (that would have been so bourgeois), except for some easy chairs for the Macbeths indicating that the Scottish Royals shop at Design Within Reach. The costuming is particularly atrocious, with Craig forced to wear a green velvet blazer that makes it look like he’s about to burst into a rendition of “Volare” and a plush winter coat that less suggests Thane of Cawdor than a self-satisfied pimp. In one of her many costume changes, Negga dons a layered, ’60’s-style dress that Charo would have deemed too tacky.

At the end of the play, the performers sit onstage, pass around bowls of food and happily proceed to enjoy a light repast as if exhausted from their efforts. But if anyone needs a reward after this enervating production, it’s the audience.

Venue: Longacre Theatre, New York
Cast: Daniel Craig, Ruth Negga, Che Ayende, Phillip James Brannon, Lizzy Brooks, Jared Canfield, Grantham Coleman, Stevie Ray Dallimore, Asia Kate Dillon, Maria Dizzia, Ronald Emile, Eboni Flowers, Amber Gray, Emeka Guindo, Paul Lazar, Bobbi Mackenzie, Peter Smith, Michael Patrick Thornton, Danny Wolohan
Director: Sam Gold
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Executive producer: Patrick Daly
Scenic designer: Christine Jones
Costume designer: Suttirat Larlarb
Lighting designer: Jane Cox
Sound designer: Mikaas Sulaiman
Original music: Gaelynn Lea
Presented by Barbara Broccoli, The Shubert Organization, Michael G. Wilson, Frederick Zollo, Christian Anderson, Keith Anderson, Brian Carmody, Patrick Milling-Smith, No Guarantees, Brian Anthony Moreland, Annapurna Theatre, Berdel Productions, Bob Boyett, Caledonia Productions, Empire Street Productions, Jeffrey Finn, John Gore Organization, Mini Cooper, James L. Nederland, RDR Productions, Daryl Roth, Orin Wolf

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