'Macbeth' review — Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga lead a 'star-enhanced hodgepodge'
Knives out. In the opening moment of Broadway's Macbeth starring Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga, a soldier is hoisted heavenward by his feet. He dangles there briefly before he's stabbed and bleeds out.
Gore goes with Shakespeare's bloody tragedy in which "fair is foul and foul is fair" — or, in other words, where the world is turned upside down. The striking topsy-turvy image speaks plainly in a revival packing more puzzles than bracing urgency. For starters, what's up with the pre-show public radio program recording about ornithology? Because the Bard mentions birds in the play? Who knows.
That's par for the course for director Sam Gold, an adventuresome pro who's known for combining big stars and ideas when it comes to classics. His earlier versions of Othello with Craig, Hamlet with Oscar Isaac, and King Lear with Glenda Jackson were all a mixed bag to some degree. The same holds true of Macbeth at the Longacre Theatre, where Craig and Negga shoulder the roles of Shakespeare's homicidal power couple.
This physical production is stripped-back and modern. Actors sport nubby cardigans, henleys, a glamour gown, and, for a hint of Scotland, tartan here and there. The stage is bare, save for a couple tables and chairs pushed in and out of sight. According to a program note, that's to foster the audience's imagination. Thanks for that.
In an added prologue, Michael Patrick Thornton, who plays multiple roles, speaks as himself and conspiratorially invites us all — superstition be damned! — to utter "Macbeth." He notes that the play was written during turbulent times, as if to shrink the divide between then and now and pull us into the action. But it doesn't quite square. This vision's lack of a cohesive point of view and acting style keeps us at bay.
A cauldron bubbles and a banquet goes belly-up in every Macbeth. Food is such a prominent ingredient here that it seems like Chopped is an inspiration. The witches slice and dice and cook onstage, and the pungent aroma of onions scents the air. A knife gets sharpened for a sly bit of humor. Macbeth figuratively and actually swallows the hags' brew, and in an epilogue, the entire ensemble savors a communal bite and a song. A troupe digging into a family meal? A comment on the tragic fallout of war? Mileage — and opinions — may vary.
Performances in the multitasking ensemble range from amateurish to superbly seasoned. Hadestown alum Amber Gray, who plays Banquo in a choice that pays off, makes each line reverberate. She cuts a vital and strong physical presence and has a rich, resonant voice. You understand why Macbeth feels threatened.
Lady M is a tricky character, one who transforms by the time it takes to read a letter. In her Broadway debut, Negga (Passing, Hamlet) conveys ferocity and ruthlessness in matter-of-fact fashion. You crave a sense of her inner wheels turning that would make the change more compelling.
Craig comes to his third Broadway show fresh from hanging up his hat as James Bond and reminds us he's an agile stage animal. His Macbeth is feral and alert and insecure, someone who'd buy into chatter cooked up by strangers that leads to chaos. A hair-raising sense of urgency finally clicks in during his undoing by Macduff (Grantham Coleman).
One does wonder why Macbeth looks like he's been at a fashion shoot when he's supposedly just back from a battle. And as directed, his big speeches turn repetitious. In the end, this Macbeth is a star-enhanced hodgepodge. It's filled with some sound, some fury, and many question marks.
Macbeth is at the Longacre Theatre through July 10. Macbeth tickets will be available on New York Theatre Guide soon.
Photo credit: Daniel Craig, Ruth Negga, and the company of Macbeth. (Photo by Joan Marcus)
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