A himbo and his irritated wife meet their bloody ends in Broadway’s new ‘Macbeth’
Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga star as the cursed couple in a profound – and funny! – interpretation of Shakespeare’s play
The Scottish play might be a tragedy, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be loads of fun.
A new Broadway production of Macbeth opened April 28 starring James Bond — sorry, Daniel Craig — as Macbeth and Ruth Negga as his brainy, put-upon Lady. Directed by Tony winner Sam Gold (Fun Home), this version ambitiously threads a needle, stitching together the spectacle and gore of horror and a parable about the dangers of chasing power with humor. Seriously, this staging may boast more laughs than Twelfth Night, an actual comedy.
A quick refresher on the plot: Everything gets rolling when two Scottish soldiers, Macbeth and his BFF (best friend forever) Banquo (Amber Gray), defeat an invading army from Norway and a bunch of Scottish rebels. King Duncan plans to reward Macbeth with a title (Thane of Cawdor), but before he can do so, Banquo and Macbeth encounter a coven of witches. Said witches are usually known as the Weird Sisters, but here, the witches are not exclusively female and their domain is a non-threatening kitchen. The Weirds tell the men that Banquo’s going to parent a line of kings and Macbeth is going to be Thane and then ascend to the throne himself.
Macbeth, having been notified of his future by a bunch of crackpots who boil up unappetizing stews, writes to his wife. Lady Macbeth, refusing to leave an ascendancy to queendom to fate, hatches a plan. Her husband will kill Duncan in his sleep, make it look like his aides did it, and voila, Scotland’s got a new ruling family.
Alas, there are some obstacles. Malcolm (Asia Kate Dillon), Duncan’s heir, remains alive, and Macbeth, possibly the world’s dumbest assassin, begins to unravel. Unsettled by the Weirds’ prophecy about Banquo parenting a line of kings, Macbeth decides to off his best bud but misses Banquo’s son, Fleance. So Fleance is running around Scotland, trying not to get killed, while Malcolm goes to England seeking help.
Macbeth, convinced that he’ll be usurped by another thane named Macduff (Grantham Coleman), kills the absent Macduff’s family and stumbles around bloodied in boots, pajamas and half-fastened body armor. Truly, this man shouldn’t be in charge of anything. Lady Macbeth, unable to just like, throw parties and enjoy sitting atop the social pecking order, is at first annoyed by her husband’s inability to hold it together, and then, isolated herself, she starts to go loopy, too. She ends up sleepwalking and confessing and then killing herself.
Macbeth, worried that every man he meets is trying to off him, keeps on killing. Eventually, Malcolm and Macduff return home with 10,000 English soldiers and kill Macbeth so Malcolm may rule.
Given its popularity and longevity, there’s a lot of baggage around the Scottish play — just about every character is so unlucky that theater people don’t even like to call it by name. Besides that, Lady Macbeth has become shorthand for demeaning a certain kind of woman: one who is partnered with a powerful man and believed to be his scary consigliere. In the popular imagination, she’s ambitious, manipulative, pushy and full of guile. Basically, the right-wing caricature of former first lady Hillary Clinton for the past 30-odd years.
This reading has been helped along by scholarship that is anything but neutral, as Dorothy McMillan notes in an introduction to Macbeth in the 2006 Collins edition of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. “The most celebrated question asked about the play, remains, I think, the much-mocked enquiry of [British scholar] A.C. Bradley, ‘How many children had Lady Macbeth?’ ”
You see where this is going, right? Lady Macbeth is the problem, the one who makes life so difficult for her husband. He could have just enjoyed life as Thane of Cawdor if not for his plotting wife, who is filling her empty womb with ambition.
Gold’s production, however, frustrates this interpretation, both in the way it uses gender in casting (making Banquo female, Malcolm nonbinary and the witches both male and female) and the way palace apparatchik Lennox (Michael Patrick Thornton) serves as an audience surrogate. With Gray as Banquo, Macbeth’s loyal and adoring first mate who is also mother to Fleance, it becomes more difficult to blame the massacre on the tumbleweeds occupying Lady Macbeth’s uterus.
Instead of a Macbeth in which the titular character is solely driven to horrible acts by the desires of his wife, we see a man who was never suited to hold power, not because he’s a weak puppet, but because he’s incompetent. Even before he gets the jitters that come with being haunted by the ghost of one’s best friend, Craig’s Macbeth is a repository of slack-jawed know-nothingness, like a power-seeking Scooby-Doo.
Banquo and Lady Macbeth become mirrors of each other, both supporting and cultivating the himbo Macbeth. Sure, he’s bad at destroying evidence, but damn if his glutes don’t set off a pair of flat-front trousers! There’s an additional layer there about the sort of women with whom Macbeth chooses to associate; besides playing Banquo, Gray, who bears a somewhat sisterly resemblance to Negga, also plays the latter ladies’ maid. They both wish to see Macbeth seated as king, and Lady Macbeth’s lack of a child matters little as an explanation for her wants. These decisions, guided by dramaturgs Michael Sexton and Ayanna Thompson, make for a Macbeth that’s extremely literate in Shakespeare and, just as important, unintimidated by its legendary status. It’s unfortunate that their efforts are somewhat undermined by Gold’s direction — the show, with its many doubled and sometimes tripled roles, can be regrettably confusing and there’s not much in the way of costuming distinctions to aid the audience. More than once, I found myself flipping through my Playbill to keep track of who was who.
The night I attended, which may or may not have been the 456th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth (some say he was born April 23, others say April 26), Thornton (who many may remember as the vinegary benefactor and boyfriend to Audra McDonald in Private Practice) opened the production with the house lights still up, addressing the audience with a bit of levity and historical background. A moral panic about witches, Thornton-as-Lennox explained, led to King James I commissioning Shakespeare to write a play about them. A rather obsessive and paranoid Jim thought that a coven of witches was trying to take him out, and he was insecure about the legitimacy of his claim to the throne. One might say he had a bit too much time to indulge his fears — James, while king, published a tome in 1597 called Daemonologie, a study of witches, vampires and necromancy! Thornton egged the audience into flirting with long-held superstition and attempted to get the whole room to say the play’s name, out loud and with confidence, the equivalent of daring a room full of people to each gaze into a mirror and say “Candyman” five times.
He got whispers.
Thornton breaks the fourth wall in several places during the production — I won’t spoil which ones — but his deadpan American delivery provides dark humor that reliably improves this tale of horror, while also working as a voice for the assumed opinions of the Bard. Can you believe these ridiculous people, Thornton transmits to the audience with a raised eyebrow and a sly smile. They’re all nuts.
Because he’s produced, read and studied the world over, it can be tempting to lean into audience expectations when it comes to Shakespeare’s most familiar works. How will a particular actor play the balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet when everyone knows, “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” or “Alas, poor Yorick” in Hamlet? Macbeth sports its own familiar lines, like the witches’ chants of “double, double toil and trouble.”
Gold anticipates this and takes full advantage of Negga’s outsize stage presence. And so Lady Macbeth’s “out, damned spot,” which actors tend to overplay with violent handwashing, recedes a bit, while lines that foreground the way Macbeth’s lunatic idiocy exasperate his wife find more attention.
When Negga shouts at her husband at a party, “YOU HAVE DISPLACED THE MIRTH,” she does it with a relish and gusto far exceeding her slight frame. One can’t help but snicker with empathy for her. Her husband’s done the deed and grabbed what the Weirds said was to be his, and now he’s just bringing down the room. The adults have made a mess of the world. But fear not, for it is weirdos and hopeful queer youth like Dillon’s Malcolm who inherit this world riven by the bloody pursuit of power and the bloodier project of retaining it, and it is they who shall remake it.
Macbeth is onstage at New York’s Longacre Theatre through July 10.