Out, Damned Scot!

Melancholy thane: Director Terry Hands's short-lived staging of Macbeth, with Grammer in the title role.Photo: Joan Marcus

Dustin Hoffman used to tell a story (apocryphal, no doubt) about John Wayne’s essaying the lead in a stage production of Macbeth. In no time, the audience erupted in guffaws. Angered, the Duke marched downstage and bellowed, “Listen, I didn’t write this crap!” The good news about Kelsey Grammer’s version of Macbeth is that it wasn’t funny. The bad news is that it would have been better if it had been, rather than what it was: dull.

Clearly contrived on the cheap and in haste, this production, since closed, turned “the Scottish play” into a skittish play, and, worse yet, a sottish play. It sprinted (actually huffed and puffed) through the text in under two hours, either to make the Guinness Book of Records or to emulate Tom Stoppard’s The 15-Minute Hamlet. The words were spoken not only trippingly on the tongue but also without much thought or feeling allowed to get in their way. When more emotion was needed, the volume was turned up, or the elocution became more orotund. Sometimes, especially by Grammer, the relentless rush was encroached on by misplaced caesuras or unwarranted pauses, producing a vocal arrhythmia without significant deceleration, let alone significance.

The text, though Shakespeare’s shortest, was somewhat cut, and played without intermission, sanctioned perhaps by Malcolm’s “We shall not spend a large expense of time” and Macduff’s “Gentle heavens, cut short all intermission,” however different their context. This may have helpfully covered up some of the (to rephrase Proust) intermittences of the art, but it also increased the sense of hugger-mugger. The set-and-costume designer, Timothy O’Brien, had made everything black (Ad Reinhardt would have rejoiced), except white tops for the Macbeths on ceremonial occasions and blue-gray for Lady Macduff and her children. This could have worked (see below) if variety had been achieved elsewhere. It would also have worked to keep the period vaguely modern (see below again) if this had been consistent. But Terry Hands, the director, began with an invented longish battle sequence with distinctly medieval broadswords and even some visored helmets, only to drop the helmets, but not the swords, as the costumes o’erleaped a handful of centuries.

The mostly empty stage nevertheless featured a drawbridgelike staircase and a similarly retractable catwalk, but Hands’s lighting was more elaborate and did create some striking effects. Other things, though, were badly garbled. One wonders, for instance, why the witches, two of whom were already played by blacks, had their faces blackly besmeared like mud wrestlers, though all they wrestled with was their lines, Myra Lucretia Taylor even managing to make hers incomprehensible. The supporting cast, which had some name recognition, did not offer a single noteworthy performance.

More disturbing was that Diane Venora, a usually fine Shakespearean (her Gertrude managed to survive even Andrei Serban’s stage Hamlet and Michael Almereyda’s movie one) was a clichéd Lady Macbeth. Looking unduly matronly, moving foursquarely (poor blocking from Hands), and delivering her lines with rote histrionics, she sadly sank to her co-star’s level. Kelsey Grammer was not awful, merely unpoetic, untragic, uninteresting. Shakespeare somewhat cavalierly stinted on showing us much of Macbeth’s initial positive sides, save his martial prowess, so that his corruption through vaulting ambition does not readily make us feel the loss of a good man. Hence it helps if the actor is a fine figure of a man, of noble countenance and with a beautiful speaking voice. Grammer can’t claim any of this. He conscientiously delivered the words and went through the prescribed motions, but there was nothing noble about his visage, virtuosic in his movements, arresting about his voice. He could not make even the greatest verses sing.

B. H. Barry had worked out some scary dueling sequences with those heavy swords, for which the actors deserve medals for bravery. But what sort of coronation banquet is given for only two invited guests, and without the ghostly Banquo either visible or adequately suggested? The witches’ cauldron was of thermos size for Weird Sisters traveling light; the Sisters themselves impersonating the awesome prophesying apparitions as they circled Macbeth in a ring-around-the-rosy. Macbeth twice got the better of Macduff in their climactic duel – even knocked him down once – and could easily have finished him off were it not that the witches appeared (unsolicited by the text) and did him in. Could it have been, given that Macduff was played by a black actor, racial solidarity? Malcolm, looking rather like funny little Teller of Penn and Teller, did not hold much promise for running post-Macbeth Scotland.

Meanwhile, New Haven’s International Festival of Arts and Ideas imported intact a highly successful Royal Shakespeare Company production of Macbeth (also now closed), running about ten minutes longer than the New York one but hardly dawdling. Its likewise black sets and costumes were by Stephen Brimson Lewis, inventively lighted by Tim Mitchell. It had live musicians performing rousing Japanese-flavored music by Adrian Lee that beat Colin Towns’s canned score for the Grammer version, though it did at times become too raucous. These costumes, too, were modern, but more aptly devised and with more relief from straight black.

Here, too, there was a kind of drawbridge, albeit a traditional one, from behind which a golden glow bathed the Macbeths at their coronation. There were some stirring coups de théâtre, as when the witches were heard from under the banqueting table, which they crashingly overturned as they emerged. The ghostly presences were faces pressed from behind against a black rubber backdrop, molding themselves into creepy high relief. The cauldron here, too, was modest but not diminutive, and there was something interesting suspended from above that could have been clouds, branches, or abstract sculpture. The witches had powerful voices but rather odd, tomboyish costumes. Hard as it must be to get small British children away for a tour, it was unfortunate that Lady Macduff seemed to have only one boy to represent “all my pretty ones,” especially since Fleance was played here by a boy who could have done some doubling.

But the grossest violation of the text by the RSC involved the porter. Played by an atypically young man, and haranguing the audience like Dame Edna, he launched on a spoof of Bill Clinton, interpolating into the “equivocator” passage references to Arkansas and some of the notorious Monica doubletalk. Otherwise, this was a good production, even if Antony Sher, the Macbeth, looked rather plebeian, not unlike Bob Hoskins. He made up for it by being a most accomplished actor, with a sardonic glitter in his darting eyes, a way of exuding intensity even when perfectly still, a voice suffused with streetwise cunning, and a coiled-spring quality hovering between mockery and menace. But he did go astray with the “Tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy, which he declaimed too artificially.

Harriet Walter was a wonderful Lady Macbeth: a faintly neurotic society hostess with aristocratic hauteur that did not quite conceal traces of hysteria. Her gaze was haughty, her manipulation of Macbeth rather grande dame-ish as she nudged and shamed her somewhat less classy husband upward. This worked much more chillingly than the usual frenzied exhortation of a power-hungry climber, and made the unraveled sleepwalking scene, by contrast, even more pathetic. The others contributed handsomely under Gregory Doran’s generally sound direction. A final cavil, though, about Macduff’s fighting Macbeth’s broadsword with a wooden pole, particularly bizarre after Macduff’s plea, “Within my sword’s length set him.” A case of pole-vaulting ambition?

Finally, what set this production many lengths ahead of Grammer’s American Macbeth was its Britishness. British English, however it may have sounded in Shakespeare’s day, has acquired a poetry-enhancing speech melody that tuneless, flat American cannot match. Great acting can compensate to an extent, but the New York production had none of that, with the master of Dunsinane little better than an inane dunce.

Out, Damned Scot!