‘Macbeth’ in the Park: Where Fair Is Foul and War Still Hell

The New York Times

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June 29, 2006

‘Macbeth’ in the Park: Where Fair Is Foul and War Still Hell

These two would seem to have it all: youth and beauty, the glow of good health, public acclaim and fabulous wardrobes. As played by Liev Schreiber and Jennifer Ehle, Shakespeare’s Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth are two camera-ready beauties glistening in the world’s gaze, Brad and Angelina granting interviews in iambic pentameter.

Of course beneath the shiny veneers lie hearts of steel, ambition-poisoned minds and imaginations steeped in blood. The Scottish nobleman and his good wife are not on a crusade to save the world’s children, but hellbent, if need be, on destroying a few of them. The Public Theater’s new production of “Macbeth,” which was scheduled to open last night at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, weather permitting, could whimsically be subtitled “Brangelina Gone Bad!”

Mr. Schreiber and Ms. Ehle are not merely handsome presences cast for their ability to look sexy even when up to their elbows in stage blood. In performances for the Public stretching over a decade, Mr. Schreiber has established himself as the foremost Shakespearean actor of his generation in America. He has consistently won acclaim for the vocal beauty and subtle intelligence of his performances as Hamlet, Iago and Henry V, among others.

Ms. Ehle is also an accomplished stage actress, known for work both on Broadway (a Tony Award-winning turn in “The Real Thing”) and in the West End. (She comes of distinguished theatrical lineage, being the daughter of Rosemary Harris.)

The meticulous craft of their performances comes, therefore, as no surprise. Mr. Schreiber and Ms. Ehle speak Shakespeare’s verse with a natural grace and clarity, a seduction to match their looks. (Ms. Ehle is seriously ravishing in her chic dresses by Michael Krass.) Drawn into an intimate relationship with their characters by means visually glamorous and aurally alluring, we should shudder all the more at the contrast between good looks and bad acts, verifying the doomed King Duncan’s observation, “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.” The problem is that in Moisés Kaufman’s elegantly wrought production set in the tumultuous early 20th century, the Macbeths’ murderous rampage unfolds at an oddly stately pace. Blood flows regularly, but as if dispensed from silver taps. In the end neither Mr. Schreiber nor Ms. Ehle seems fully to inhabit the darkness of their characters, despite — or maybe because of — the fastidiousness of their interpretations.

A dense thoughtfulness has always been a hallmark of Mr. Schreiber’s Shakespearean turns, and it is here matched by Ms. Ehle’s nuanced delineation of Lady Macbeth’s gradual disintegration. But together and separately they remain cool customers in a play that demands something closer to ferocious heat. The play’s dark vision should colonize our imaginations with terrifying images of the havoc wrought when man’s baser nature unleashes its darkness, making unnatural all that it touches. Spooky sound effects notwithstanding, this production never really gets under your skin.

Like his leading players, Mr. Kaufman is a supple craftsman, and his felicitous touches here begin with the late curtain time of 8:30, unusual for productions at the Delacorte. Darkness descends on the park just as the Macbeths are dispatching King Duncan (Herb Foster), and the play, so full of imagery evoking night and its depths, dives permanently into that shadowy otherworld where “fair is foul and foul is fair.”

Best known for the Tony-winning “I Am My Own Wife” and the long-running “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde,” Mr. Kaufman has trimmed the production in accouterments evoking the stresses of war, the Public Theater’s overarching theme this summer for both its plays at the Delacorte. (The second, in case you haven’t heard, is Brecht’s “Mother Courage,” starring Meryl Streep.)

The audience assembles to a soundtrack of distant explosions. The weird sisters are ghostly hags of the battlefield, returning not just to offer cryptic counsel to Macbeth but also to escort his victims from the stage into the realm of the dead. The play closes not on a note of hope, with peace and right rule restored to Scotland, but with the witches setting another meeting, presumably to help foster another cycle of violence (an image perhaps borrowed from Roman Polanski’s film of the play). The set, by Derek McLane, is a decaying mansion decorated in gilt, surrounded by the rubble of a civilization torn apart by unrest.

These trappings lend the play a surface topicality, and they are executed effectively by Mr. McLane and the lighting designer, David Lander, whose intricate work is particularly impressive given the complications of open-air staging. The theory behind the production is that Macbeth is a general whose mind has been corrupted by soul-deadening years on the battlefield, where life must be lived in the absence of doubt.

But “Macbeth” is not really a play about war, as “King Lear” is not a play about real estate. So Mr. Kaufman’s imagery doesn’t expand our vision of the play, and some of the elaborate staging slackens the pace of a tragedy that best hypnotizes by keeping the pedal to the metal. “Macbeth” is full of allusions to time, and too often we are aware of it as it sifts through Mr. Kaufman’s hardworking hands.

Lackluster performances in most of the supporting roles compound the problem. Varying from competent (Mr. Foster’s Duncan and doctor) to bland (the Banquo of Teagle F. Bougere) to strident (Florencia Lozano’s Lady Macduff), the actors rarely command attention, leaving Mr. Schreiber and Ms. Ehle to provide virtually all of the dramatic firepower.

That they don’t quite deliver enough has less to do with their talents than with matching actors to roles. Mr. Schreiber and Ms. Ehle offer finely detailed portraits of complex people breaking apart as their murderous acts reverberate in their minds and in the world around them. But at no point do these fine artists seem possessed by their slightly supernatural characters. We leave impressed by the dedication of actors to their craft, not hollowed out by a hair-raising encounter with two of Shakespeare’s darkest and most disturbing creations.


By William Shakespeare; directed by Moisés Kaufman; sets by Derek McLane; costumes by Michael Krass; lighting by David Lander; music by Peter Golub; sound by Acme Sound Partners; dramaturg, Robert Blacker; fight director, Rick Sordelet. Shakespeare in the Park, presented by the Public Theater. At the Delacorte Theater, Central Park; (212) 539-8750. Through July 9. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

WITH: Liev Schreiber (Macbeth), Jennifer Ehle (Lady Macbeth), Joan MacIntosh, Ching Valdes-Aran and Lynn Cohen (Weird Sisters), Herb Foster (Duncan), Jacob Fishel (Malcolm), Teagle F. Bougere (Banquo), Florencia Lozano (Lady Macduff) and Sterling K. Brown (Macduff).



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