Macbeth by William Shakespeare. Directed by Sam Gold. Scenic design by Christine Jones. Costume design by Suttirat Larlarb. Lighting design by Jane Cox. Sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman. Original music by Gaelynn Lea. Special effects design by Jeremy Chernick. Make-up, hair, and wig design by Tommy Kurzman. Fight director David Leong. Movement by Sam Pinkleton.
Dramaturgy and text consultant Michael Sexton and Ayanna Thompson.
I referred to it above as "William Shakespeare's Macbeth," but, actually, it would better be called "Sam Gold's Macbeth," since only occasionally do you get a sense that you are watching something by Shakespeare. Or listening to it, for that matter, since only a few of the performances reflect the poetry and rhythms of the actual play. I'm also pretty sure Shakespeare never had a character strip down to his underwear, grab a cold one, and address the audience: "First beer of the weekend!"
In general, Gold has two ways of directing when dealing with a classic play. He has shown he knows how to follow a more-or-less traditional approach, in the sense of honoring a playwright's work. A perfect example of this would be the 2016 production of Othello at Off-Broadway's New York Theatre Workshop. Gold's work on that was stellar. The changes he made were in the way the play was staged, but not in the characters or the speeches. He also brought out a thrilling performance by the actor playing Othello's archenemy Iago. That would be Daniel Craig, who is now back in the role of Macbeth.
If Craig ever expected to give the audience a Macbeth to equal his Iago, he possibly did not anticipate meeting up with the other side of Gold's directing personality. That Gold is someone who is fascinated with how things work, and in order to find out he takes everything apart. The problem is, he seems to have no idea of how to put them back together again, often opting for startling images that fail, even obliquely, to elucidate. A prime example is his 2017 production of Hamlet, presented at the Public Theater. That one included scenes of Polonius sitting on the toilet and, later, of Ophelia vomiting into it.
No one vomits in Macbeth, but you might feel inclined to when you watch the witches prepare and serve up bowls of whatever it is they are concocting in their cauldron. I didn't notice any eye of newt or toe of frog, but we do see them dicing up a variety of vegetables before adding human blood that we get to witness being harvested, along with something else that I sincerely hope is pink oatmeal.
It does seem here, and in other productions Gold has helmed, that his focus is on individual moments of "let's try this; let's try that." Consider the cauldron bit for a second. It kind of makes sense that the witches are into gore, even though in Shakespeare's play, the "eye of newt, toe of frog" business refers not to animal parts, but to plants carrying those colorful nicknames. It also kind of makes sense to serve up their brew to Macbeth when he returns later in the play to learn more about their prophecy. The resulting scene suggests we are witnessing a hallucination, and, assuming that was Gold's intent, it actually works.
On the other hand, why do we also see bowls of the goop being served to the entire rest of the cast at the end of the play, while one of them sings a song written not by Shakespeare, but by Gaelynn Lea? The composer also provides the production's underscoring and, periodically, its overscoring, with dissonant and sometimes piercing sounds that resemble the shrieking violins in the shower scene in Psycho or the factory whistle in Sweeney Todd. Melodrama on steroids.
There are clever bits here and there, mostly involving the visual elements, such as the use of hand-carried fog machines and lanterns to conjure up mists and the darkness of night. But the overall production lacks anything resembling cohesiveness. The loosey-goosey feel to the entire enterprise suggests we are watching an early stage in the rehearsal studio, which Christine Jones's set design does resemble. Most everyone in the cast, including Craig, seems to still be struggling to find their way through the discovery process, never mind thinking about blocking or coordinating acting styles against one another.
Also quite effective on her own is Amber Gray as Banquo. She certainly could play the role as written, but Gold has decided that since Gray is a woman, then Banquo should be a woman, and thus there are constant adjustments to Shakespeare's words to accommodate gendered pronouns of she/her/hers. It is creepy, as I am sure it is intended to be, to watch a pot-bellied dullard of a King Duncan (Paul Lazar) get handsy with Banquo as a woman.
Truly, it is difficult to fathom what Gold has in mind. Sometimes, the entire production comes off as if it were being performed by a high school class of mixed talents, assigned to read Macbeth by their popular English teacher. Indeed, that role seems like it might be intended for Michael Patrick Thornton, who, in a very engaging way, introduces the play to the audience by contextualizing it within the deep interest in witchcraft at this time in England's history.
It might have made sense just to run with this conceit, since Gold is clearly not averse to tinkering with Shakespeare's language, cutting and adding material to suit his vision of the play, and letting things unfold as they may. Whatever his rationale, Gold likes to bring a downtown, experimental theater perspective to Broadway, where, really, it simply does not work, at least not with this production of Macbeth.
On a personal note, I want to extend my best wishes to Grantham Coleman, who was out of the performance I attended, possibly due to a positive COVID-19 test, and to offer a salute to Che Ayende, who stepped into Coleman's role of Macduff, as well as to Peter Smith, who likewise took on Ayende's role as a witch. More broadly, I want to give a shout out to everyone involved with getting all of this season's Broadway shows (by my count, 34, from Pass Over to Macbeth) up and running, despite COVID-19 outbreaks and the tremendous demands on cast members, creative teams, and workers who had any role in making it all happen. I would also like to offer praise to the publicists and the members of their staffs for the way they were able to handle shifting schedules, cancellations, and requests for scripts and production photos, all while maintaining a positive outlook. It's been quite a season. I look forward to 2022-23!