I'm never fully on board with productions of Shakespeare that offer little in the way of visual or conceptual updates to The Bard's 400-year-old dialogue and poetry much like I have no patience with the strict constructionist argument regarding the U.S. Constitution, I feel like the texts deserve, and at this point demand, some liberal interpretation. Certainly, directors can get too creative with their staging, casting, and costuming whims an all-female production of Twelfth Night at CalShakes last year which, bizarrely, kept a coffin on stage through the entire comedy, was a prime example of such forced, poor choices. That caveat aside, director Daniel Sullivan's latest take on Macbeth, one of the most sinister and bloody of Shakespeare's tragedies, does well to remind us of the pre-Christian, pagan traditions that color the legend of the mostly fictional Scottish king, and does so with some cool modern projection techniques. But by far the reason to see this production at Berkeley Rep is star Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth, in her first major role on a prominent Bay Area stage in recent memory.
McDormand's Lady Macbeth is as ruthless, driven, and cruelly complicit in her husband's murders as other Lady Macbeths I've seen, but also a far more nervous, regretful, and human one too. And while Game of Thrones cast member Conleth Hill gives an admirably bold and convincing performance in the title role, he seems at times to be acting in a different play altogether taking seriously his role as Shakespearean Actor Playing Macbeth while McDormand comes at her character with fresh eyes, and all of the subtlety and empathy we've come to know from her film work.
Other performances too, including a fine one by Korey Jackson as Macduff, and local actor James Carpenter doing his typically kingly best as Duncan (as well as two other roles) are praiseworthy but still can not match the artistry that McDormand brings to the stage, leaving me to feel, at times, like I was watching her in one play, and everyone else in another, fairly traditional version of Macbeth.
Elements like some inelegant sword fighting, and all-too-expected period costumes add to the sense that Sullivan was aiming too squarely at historic authenticity, while the aforementioned projections by lighting designer Pat Collins with video by Alexander V. Nichols, and the set by Douglas W. Schmidt, brought the piece to life in many moments that felt more modern, and inspired. The costume choices for the three witches (one of whom is played by McDormand) by designer Meg Neville were also original and leant a Sendak-ian whimsy to these dark female presences.
Sullivan's direction of the witches, too, feels like the most original element of the piece hint, there is no cauldron, and there are no brooms. As McDormand and the other two actors playing witches, Mia Tagano and Rami Margron, discuss in the video below, they approached the characters as pagan women who were, in their own way, rebelling against the patriarchal forces around them.
Traditionalists will likely find nothing wrong with any of it, I'd guess, and the thrill and pleasure of seeing McDormand live on stage in such a canonical role is enough of a reason to buy a ticket for sure. It's just one of those times when you wish that you could see an actor of her talent deliver a great performance within a production commensurate with that greatness, which this isn't quite. But it is damn good.
Macbeth plays through April 10 at Berkeley Rep. Find some limited remaining tickets here, and if you are under the age of 30, be sure to get their half-price discount.