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Blood in the kitchen
on June 13, 2011
This review does not principally address Shakespeare's play, nor the acting in this version, which is generally excellent, within its constraints. I am addressing the production's most obvious feature: it's relocation in time, and it's staging.
We are in the 20th Century here. This is no defect. The actual era of Macbeth is extremely misty--it is quite certainly not Elizabethan. A tale of maddened ambition, bloody tyranny, a state defiled is certainly at home in the dungeon-century we have just crawled out of (and into what, one might ask?). The opening scene (on a battlefield) seems first to be World War I--perhaps in Serbia or some such place. Later, the Second War comes to seem more likely.
The opening setting is some kind of field hospital within a large fortification (subterranean largely, elevators--the Maginot line?). The "Bloody Man,"--the injured Scottish messenger--is interviewed by senior officers (I am assuming some familiarity with the play) while being given blood, attention to an abdominal wound, evidently severe, etc. This is highly convincing. It is therefore chilling to discern that the nurses are the Three Witches on their first appearance. What is more fearsome than an evil nurse? Left alone with him, the witches appear to kill him for his heart. Good lord! This production is off and running.
But Macbeth is a dangerous place. Theatre people fear the play. It is just where to meet a hobgoblin. And hobgoblins, with the face of Consistency, are known to haunt small minds. Having gotten into this odd structure, our production can't get out. The entire play (with a couple of exceptions to be noted) takes place in a white-tiled, but dirty, institutional kitchen, or possibly latrine, or possibly both. Underground.
King Duncan lives in it. The Macbeths live in it (forcing Duncan, arriving at their "castle" to exclaim, "This castle hath a pleasant seat..." while apparently in the Subway). The exigences of latrine life take their toll on court etiquette: Lady Macbeth, Countess of Cawdor, is shown wiping down her own kitchen and dishing up fowls for the King as though she were Blondie Bumstead (admittedly, her kitchen help consists exclusively of the Three Witches, who never go away).
I promised some excursions from the latrine. We are, of course, in Scotland under a tyranny. Quite a number of the personae take refuge off and on in England. They are able to travel between the two capitols by a convenient steam express, presumably the old Flying Scotsman. Banquo and his son are assaulted in their flight--Banquo is murdered, of course, his boy escapes--by the railroad tea-service staff, who have become Macbeth's tame thugs--a chilling detail for those brought up in terror of British Railways tea. There is a good scene with snarling police dogs and goose-stepping troops in the background outside a comparatively normal residence that Macbeth once uses. (It is gracious of the production to make the 20th Century monster Macbeth is turning into Stalin and not the ever-popular Hitler.)
Tragedy cannot endure bathos. Bathos is what is going on here as Lady Macbeth seems to look for the Saran-Wrap in her inconvenient kitchen, in the tea-service murders, in the inability of anyone to go anywhere except in a giant elevator, in Banquo's corpse laboriously getting up in the train carriage (has it stopped?) and plodding off, like Bela Lugosi, to appear at Macbeth's dinner (where the waitresses will be...the witches).
If the other aspects of the production were silly as all this, the enterprise would simply not matter. But there is much here that is good, even very good. Macbeth as...Robert Mugabe, Pol Pot, the ghastly Ghaddafi, Stalin?...is a perfectly valid idea (though he proves much easier to get rid of than they--Shakespeare didn't know everything we do). Macbeth himself (perhaps he has read Tony Tanner's magisterial "Prefaces to Shakespeare") marvelously projects his character's strangely clear sight (Macbeth always sees the full moral consequence of what he is about to do), and his hideous compulsion (he always does it anyway). Lady Macbeth's slow unraveling after her carnivorous beginning is perfectly managed (does she lack her husband's terrible vision and does not see how deep a pit she is digging them, or does she unravel in step with her husband--though quite differently, there is male and female here--or both?). The Thane of Fife's remorse at going to England and leaving his wife and small children to be killed by the monster (his action is inexplicable, but that's Shakespeare, not this production), and his implacable hunger for revenge afterwards (maybe Shakespeare's intention) is heartbreaking. This could be a valuable Macbeth.
But couldn't we please get out of the kitchen a little? Or is it the latrine? My three stars are given to the acting and by some of the concept (which, if not marred, would have deserved more). The staging deserves a great deal less.