|Conleth Hill & Frances McDormand|
Years from now when I look back at all the productions of Macbeth that I have seen from Ashland to London to Edinburgh and many places in between, I am confident that the current rendition at Berkeley Repertory Theatre will be emblazoned in my fondest memories. While the searing, steely performance of Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth is truly one to relish, it is not any of the actors that I will probably so easily recall. What will come quickly to my mind will be all the sights and sounds that so enable, enhance, and electrify the words the actors relay in their telling Shakespeare’s story of bloody pursuit power at all costs. Cold, dark castle walls soar with stark immensity. Rolling banks of fog hide haunting calls of ravens. Cavernous dining halls lit in eerie shades appear only to be suddenly replaced by a moor’s wind-swept plain or a deep forest of giant trees. That this will be a production to remember is clear in the opening moments when a blood-soaked soldier hanging crucified on a gigantic skeleton of a tree provides the setting for the conjuring of three scraggly witches. That same monolithic tree then suddenly vanishes into thin air with the blink of an eye, accompanied by effects of lighting and sound that shock the senses. Stunning and surreal are the results of Berkeley Rep’s team of Douglas W. Schmidt (scenic design), Pat Collins (lighting), Dan Moses Schreier (sound), and especially Alexander V. Nicols (for a video design that is beyond words of comparison).
The women of this drama of mostly male roles are real the movers and shakers of the story as powerfully directed by Daniel Sullivan. Frances McDormand’s Lady Macbeth is clearly in charge with a stone face that is imprinted with her no-holes-barred determination to be queen to Macbeth’s king. She moves with a resolution that is palpable and speaks in a callously calm, ‘you-will-do-this’ voice as she plots the assassination plan with her on-and-off-again husband. It is she who does hesitate to grab daggers from her shaking husband and get her own hands bloody in order to ensure the deed to Duncan is fatally complete. When those hands will later not come clean in her deranged state of sleep waking no matter the wringing, the shiver-producing scream she viscerally emits in agony is now forever embedded as one more memory not to be soon forgotten.
With much less time on stage, Mia Tagano along with the young Leon Jones also leaves her mark on this production as Lady Macduff with her son. Their intimate interactions in front of a comforting fireplace are endearing and heart-warming while also adding to the pathos the audience feels for their impending doom we know is coming any moment.
Rami Margron is joined by both Ms. McDormand and Ms. Tagono as three exceptionally creepy, dark weird sisters. Meg Neville has dressed each in distinct black and gray combinations of robes, feathers, rags, helmet, and leathered crown. Their voices creak and groan as they dance around with their incantations and predictions to Macbeth. Daniel Sullivan magnificently directs the witches’ presence in such a way to underscore the permeating and ever-present nature of the chanted suggestions that spawn Macbeth and his wife to deathly deeds.
Less satisfying, at least in the beginning scenes, is Conleth Hill as Macbeth. He somehow lacks the deadly determination of purpose that Lady Macbeth so shows. His voice is too often more like in casual conversation than plied in plots of royal takeover. His presence is not commanding enough to convince that he is totally hungry for power. Where he does soar is when his Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost during the banquet scene. Mr. Hill’s Macbeth then becomes wild-eyed, panicked to the core, and is like a trapped animal in his leaps on table and cowering in corners full of his sheer fear.
As Macbeth’s loyal Banquo in the opening scenes, Christopher Innvar exudes both a distinguished air of integrity and an immediate concern and fear of consequences of the three demonic women’s predictions. While Macbeth listens in fearful fascination, Banquo repeatedly brandishes his sword and his gives a warning tone in voice as he converses with Macbeth about the meaning of their messages. Later, as the ghost suddenly appearing among dinner guests but only seen my Macbeth, Mr. Innvar never flinches from the fixated, fear-producing stare he locks into Macbath’s guilty soul.
Notable performances are also provided by Korey Jackson as Macduff (who is gripping in first-measured, then-enraged reactions as he realizes the fate of his slaughtered family) and especially by James Carpenter who takes on three quite different, delicious roles. As Duncan, Mr. Carpenter’s austere but warm and slightly warbled voice along with his greying, shoulder-length locks and beard speak of a king others clearly respect and love. An appearance as a sack-clothed, slightly inebriated porter -- obviously perturbed to be awoken by loud pounding on the castle door at dawn -- gives Mr. Carpenter a chance to make the most of one of the few humorous moments in Shakespeare’s otherwise dark play. Rounding out his trio of roles is his green-turbaned entrance as the attentive but suspicious doctor attending to Lady Macbeth’s madness as she confesses things he clearly would rather not hear.
Adam Magill never seems to capture the essence of the role of Malcolm, the wrongly accused son of Duncan who must flee to England and then return to lead armies to victory and capture his own rightful realm. Malcolm’s speeches are largely uninspired in delivery and unconvincing to be those of a future king. Other lesser roles by the rest of the cast also do not always make huge marks of distinction, with none being neither particularly good nor bad.
Among the many visual impacts of this production that will last a long time in memory is seeing Macbeth, now king, sitting as a very small-looking man on the huge, over-sized thrown once filled by the now-dead Duncan ( a brilliant design by Douglas S. Schmidt). No more powerful picture could illustrate how out of place and wrong Macbeth is in replacing the previous Duncan. One can hardly keep from thinking about some of the day’s headlines relating remarks made by current presidential candidates and imaging how any very small many of them might look like in sitting at the chair behind the Commander-in-Chief’s desk in the West Wing.
Yes, Macbeth is still very relevant in its messages and meanings – especially when served up in such memorable impressions of this overall excellent production by Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
Rating: 4 E
Macbeth continues through April 10, 2016 on the Roda Theatre stage of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA. Tickets are available at http://www.berkeleyrep.org/boxoffice/index.asp or by calling 510-647-2975 Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 7 p.m.
Photos by Kevin Berne