The last time the Guthrie mounted a production of Macbeth was 16 years ago, when Robert Foxworth (then a TV star known mostly for his portrayal of Chase Gioberti, the patriarch of a California wine-making dynasty on the show Falcon Crest ) played Macbeth, and generally stunk up the joint. Talk about a vat full of bubbling trouble.
So, when Joe Dowling announced last year that he was taking on the so-called Scottish play, those of us who suffered through Foxworth’s mewling, insipid performance all those years ago recognized the opportunity for redemption. The only question was: Could Joe Dowling mount a strong enough production to wipe those unfortunate memories clean and allow Macbeth to reclaim its rightful position as Shakespeare’s most visceral, psychologically disturbing work?
The short answer to that question is yes: The Guthrie is now staging an altogether gripping, intense, psychologically astute production that goes for the jugular in more ways than one. Whenever Dowling directs the bard, he inevitably re-works the play a bit to appeal to modern sensibilities, often dropping in humorous cultural references like bits of candy for people forced to eat too many vegetables. But this time out he’s resisted that impulse—all he’s done is shorten the play to a trim, taught two hours, with no intermission. The result is a lean, muscular version that looks and feels like a bit like a Hitchcock movie. The only thing missing is a poster tag line that reads: Macbeth : A psychological thriller!
The set is a bombed-out, post-apocalyptic palace rotunda with a hole in the ceiling that doesn’t let any actual light in, just lightning. The soot-covered marble columns are a perfect metaphor for Macbeth and his wife’s undoing, destroyed as they are from within by explosions of hubris and guilt from which they cannot escape. The production is not located in any particular time period, either (the military officers wear contemporary uniforms, some characters wear a coat and tie, and the soldiers wear an assortment of military gear, from leather helmets and berets to chainmail), which further focuses the action on the Macbeths and their inescapable fate.
Dowling comes out firing, literally. The first scene is a massive battle scene with soldiers rapelling down wires from the ceiling and hurling themselves all over the stage as Macbeth dispatches them all, one by one, Ninja-style, along with an impressive amount of artillery, establishing him as Scotland’s mightiest warrior. Inserting this scene in the beginning (it’s not in the script) also serves as a reminder that Macbeth is no stranger to killing, and that the remorse he is going to feel later after he’s dispatched King Duncan has more to do with a betrayal of honor and the shame of ill-got gains than it does with the actual spilling of Duncan’s blood.
Erik Heger plays Macbeth as a bit of a lout and numbskull—a relative innocent who is easily manipulated by Lady Macbeth (played by Michelle O’Neill) into doing whatever is necessary to realize her ambitions. Heger’s Macbeth isn’t devious; he’s mostly just trying to please his wife and become the leader others want him to be, even though deep down it’s clear he doesn’t believe his heroics on the battlefield mean he’ll be great king. He gets his courage from his misplaced faith in the prophecy of the witches, which has its modern parallel in people like Sarah Palin, George Bush, or any leader who is convinced that God has chosen them to carry out a special mission. As the play unfolds, Heger convey’s Macbeth’s dismay and outrage with wide-eyed astonishment, and his spiral into madness is as painful to watch as it is compelling. Likewise, Michelle O’Neill’s Lady Macbeth is a red-headed spitfire who preens like a cat on her couch and snaps at her husband as if he’s just a big, dumb kid. ‘Men! They can’t do anything right!’ is her attitude, and she never lets Macbeth forget who is really calling the shots.
While it’s a strong production throughout, this Macbeth contains three exquisite scenes that raise it into the must-see realm: the aforementioned battle scene at the beginning, the classic banquet scene, in which the ghost of Macbeth’s buddie Banquo (Bill McCallum) shows up like a zombie from hell, and the scene in the woods where the witches reveal their dark prophecy to Macbeth. The latter is especially creepy, as it involves Macduff’s children, covered in blood, rising up from the center of the stage and speaking in that spooky, voice-from-beyond way that the ghosts of murdered children so often do. It's tremendous theater.
The cuts to shorten the play aren’t particularly noticeable, unless you happen to be a fan of the Weird Sisters, in which case you’ll note that the recipe for their witch’s brew is missing a few ingredients, including my personal favorites, “liver of blaspheming Jew,” and “finger of birth-strangled babe.” Otherwise, there’s just some welcome speech-trimming here and there. Rather than obsess about language, Dowling has focused the energy of this production on the psychic unraveling of its main characters and on a few spectacular scenes designed to curl both your lips and your blood. At long last it can finally be said that the ghost of Robert Foxworth’s lamentable Macbeth has been purged. This Macbeth is now the one to beat.
Macbeth continues at the Guthrie Theater through April 3.
Pictured above: Michelle O'Neill as Lady Macbeth and Erik Heger as Macbeth.