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A Tale of Three Macbeths

June 14, 2016

Over the past few nights I’ve been working on some props for Those Women’s upcoming show Margaret of Anjou. I like to have TV on in the background while I art-n’-craft, so I decided to finally check out the Michael Fassbender Macbeth. And then the next night, the Great Performances film of Patrick Stewart’s. And, of course, the recent production at the Berkeley Rep was on my mind. Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine…

macfassbenderThe Fassbender movie was… fine. It didn’t add much to my experience of the play, or the oevre of Shakespeare on film, but I also can’t point to anything in particular as “bad.” Ho hum, Scottish accents. The one interesting idea was that Malcolm actually catches Macbeth killing Duncan; they moved “the fountain of your blood is stopped” to this moment, and even if Fassbender didn’t own the role overall, he sure as hell can radiate menace. Malcolm, of course, high-tails it. So that was fun. I also really wanted to see The Borgias‘ Sean Harris as Macduff, since Harris is usually the one playing the murdering psychopath in any given… anything. He was serviceable, as well, but I find Macduff much less interesting than Micheletto, so.

sirpatstewmacbethOkay, I’m’a be a total spoiled Macbeth hipster for a minute here, but I saw Patrick Stewart live at BAM, and it was amaaaaaazing. There were changes for the filmed version, of course, and I missed some of the things you can only do onstage, like repeating the dinner party scene so we see it both with and without Banquo’s bloody ghost. The overall Cold-War-ish Soviet look was the same, love it, and most of the moments mapped onto what I remember, with one slightly disappointing exception: onstage, the most striking thing about Patrick Stewart as Macbeth is that he never yelled. Never. Did not shout defiance to Banquo’s ghost, did not roar at the oncoming Macduff, nothing. Threats and orders were delivered quietly, in a voice that scraped the bass end of his register. There was some shouting added in the movie version — but still about 95% less than your average Macbeth. Every performance in this one blows the Fassbender movie out of the water. Great knife fight at the end, too. (Terry King, you are the man!)

And then, swimming up in my memory, come Conleth Hill and Frances McDormand as the royal couple…. 

Reviews were mixed, praising the show’s visuals and some performances while calling it unfocused and lamenting the chemistry between the leads. I actually loved these two as Mr and Mrs, and the show’s focus on Mackers as essentially a weak character. We hear that he’s a boss on the battlefield, but what we see onstage is a man so ill-suited to leadership that this can only end badly. He gets promoted above his actual skill set and finds himself making stupid, short-sighted choices in a desperate scramble to rescue himself from previous stupid, short-sighted choices. Tragic flaw, hell — he’s just kind of a schlemiel, and I love to see that exemplified in the same character as martial prowess, which we usually (and toxically) lionize as the crowning (GET IT?!) achievement of masculinity.

Whoops, seem to have fallen down a textual rabbit hole. Ah, well. In for a penny…

My favorite thing about Frances McDormand’s Lady M was that she took the time to be happy. It seems to me that a lot of Ladies go straight from “Wow, my husband will be king” to “Okay, you lily-livered dipshit, we’re going to do this or else,” and then keep their teeth bared until the sleepwalking scene. But McDormand tried to find whatever moments were going well for Lady Macbeth, the handful of times in the play where she feels good, and highlight those… which makes it worse, in the end.

And together? They sought comfort from each other consistently throughout the play. And while the emphasis is usually placed on “I have given suck, and know how tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me,” here the line flowed by, and the ‘stop’ came when Macbeth jokes, with admiration, “Bring forth men-children only, for thy undaunted mettle should compose nothing but males.” The words are just out of his mouth when he realizes what he’s said. He takes her hand. They are sad together for a moment. He wants to go back to the conversation that was making her happy, thus the huuuuge redirect into “Will it not be received, when we have marked with blood those sleepy two…” I’m sure this isn’t the first time I’ve seen that beat played up, but it — obviously — stuck out for me here as something that really worked.

Although I (obviously) love Macbeth, it also has my least favorite scene in Shakespeare: Macduff goes to England to give Malcolm a pep talk, Malcolm pretends to be a terrible person who shouldn’t be king, and as soon as Macduff is well and truly pissed off, Malcolm takes it all back and says it was just a test. The scene feels like it’s nine years long, and I dread it every time I see the show. Adam Macgill and Korey Jackson made it work for me, though, largely because Adam’s Malcolm seemed aware of the hyperbole of his terrible-person claims and wasn’t successfully inhabiting them for Macduff’s benefit; same thing later, when he tells Macduff to “man up,” he seems to realize how inappropriate it is that he’s saying that to a stone-cold badass like Macduff, who then schools him in true manliness in like six words. To put it another way, Adam is a better actor than Malcolm, who is just as honest and boyish as he says. Gold star for everyone!

I think my props are done setting; peace, the charm’s wound up…


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