For his loyal fan base, director Sam Gold’s latest revival of a classic play gets it at least half right. For his many detractors, it might register as a bigger failure than his “King Lear” starring Glenda Jackson in 2019. Returning to the scene of that crime, aka Broadway, Gold now directs Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga in “Macbeth,” which opened Thursday at the Longacre Theatre.
This Scottish play is no “King Lear” as misdirected by Gold. Then again, the director doesn’t equal here his radical, insightful interpretations of Shakespeare as seen with his “Hamlet” at the Public Theater in 2017, starring Oscar Isaac, or his “Othello” at New York Theatre Workshop in 2017, starring David Oyelowo and Craig.
Some of the problem with this “Macbeth” is Broadway. Watching the production and often being very engaged, I kept thinking how much better this “Macbeth” would be if staged in-the-round at NYTW or on a thrust stage at the Public Theater. The first act of Gold’s “Macbeth” is very much the Living Room “Macbeth.” That intimate approach doesn’t work as well on a Broadway proscenium stage with not one but two balconies out front. It’s nonetheless effective, even if it means sacrificing a lot of the first act’s spookiness. When you enter the Longacre, three witches (Phillip James Brannon, Maria Dizzia and Bobbi MacKenzie) are already on stage dressed in street clothes (costumes by Suttirat Larlarb) and making lunch. This normalizing of the witches is not exactly a novel directorial touch. Adrian Noble’s stylish production of Verdi’s opera, first seen at the Met Opera in 2008, features a couple dozen witches dressed up like suburban housewives clutching their handbags.
Except for the outrageous things they say and do, this Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are just another married couple hanging out on their worn but comfortable living room couch. Unlike most married couples, they’re really sexy and make out a lot. But after offing King Duncan (Paul Lazar, in his Broadway debut), Macbeth needs to unwind and that involves going to the fridge to get a beer. Really pissed off, his wife has to pick up the knives and put them back at the murder scene to see the plot through as she envisioned it.
Craig and Negga make it clear that once she has set the action in motion, he immediately turns into a big problem she can’t control. Craig has the ability to spout poetry and still come off like a driven, single-minded dumbass. Late in the drama, pouting on his favorite living room couch, he delivers an uncanny portrait of what it’s like to be Vladimir Putin right now. And in that portrait of white male vanity gone berserk, Larlarb’s costume shows off the actor’s sizable pecs in outfit after outfit.
It’s fun watching actors as attractive as Craig and Negga engage in sex play for our entertainment. Negga, however, doesn’t have Craig’s common touch, and looks out of sync with Gold’s vision. She’s anything but banal. In 2020, she delivered an especially impetuous Hamlet at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. She was a college student come home to a domestic mess, but as an actor, Negga possessed the technique to handle the Bard’s language in a way that no male teenage performer ever could. Here in “Macbeth,” she resembles a gorgeous silent-movie vamp. What’s a dish like this doing with a lump like Macbeth? We ask that question about a lot of married couples, and maybe because of that chronic mismatch (Larlarb’s costumes emphasize Negga’s exotic beauty), she and Craig are able to deliver a picture of marital bliss gone bad in scene after scene. The resulting claustrophobia becomes palatable, and it’s that decreasing sense of space that would work better on Gold’s home turf, Off Broadway. Rather than being part of the action on Broadway, we’re peering across the proscenium stage at the action. It’s not ideal, but it is often riveting nonetheless.
With his production of “Hamlet” at the Public, Gold stunned audiences with some outrageous double-casting. No sooner had Ophelia offed herself, than the actor Gayle Rankin returned a moment later as one of the grave diggers. Lazar delivers that whiplash moment in “Macbeth,” going from the just-slain King Duncan to a porter in record speed. He’s as immediately loony here as he was in his memorable cameo playing a creepy lepidopterist in “The Silence of the Lambs.”
With the casting of some of these smaller roles, Gold has a tendency to play it fast and loose, Lazar being a prime example that works. It’s here that Gold borrows a page from the Josef von Sternberg/Ernst Lubitsch playbook, using American actors with the flattest of accents to lampoon European royalty: see Louise Dresser in “Scarlet Empress” and George Barbier in “The Merry Widow,” two film classics from 1934. Curiously, Amber Gray adopts a mid-Atlantic accent to offer a forgettable Banquo (she/her), the character’s spectacular return as a ghost in the banquet scene proving an exception. Unfortunately, Asia Kate Dillon’s Malcolm, Grantham Coleman’s Macduff and Brannon’s Ross register as merely amateurish. Gold, a director with too many ideas, leaves his actors completely stranded in the pivotal scene where Macduff learns of his wife and child being murdered.
The oppressive claustrophobia of the play’s first half dissipates, and so does the drama as the bodies pile up. An insert in the Playbill offers a note about this being a minimal production. Gold creates most of his effects through fog machines, carried on stage by the actors, and flashlights, also carried on stage by the actors. But just when you think you’re staring into an empty stage, Gold and his scenic designer Christine Jones surprise us. After the Malcolm/Macduff/Ross misfire, any kind of shock to the production is welcome.
Gold begins “Macbeth” with a prologue, delivered by the production’s Lennox. Michael Patrick Thornton adopts an overly familiar, smug tone to tell us about the year in which Shakespeare wrote “Macbeth.” Apparently, he was very prolific in 1606 because England was suffering through a pandemic and, not being able to act on stage, he could focus on his day job cranking out new material. Gold ends “Macbeth” with a sweet song (original music by Gaelynn Lea) sung by MacKenzie, previously seen as a witch and Macduff’s child. Because I enjoy and respect Gold doesn’t mean that I always understand him.