Macbeth (2024)

Macbeth Review

Macbeth (2024)

“Macbeth” and not just on the battlefield has a high body count. The tragedy has taken down many of its greatest actors and directors, who have fallen prey to its true curse: its tricky stagecraft.

As protagonists go, Macbeth’s trajectory is an odd one. When we meet him, he is a battle tested hero with obvious scruples. But after he murders the king to secure the throne for himself, he becomes an unfettered tyrant who sinks into paranoia and butchery.

The supernatural element in the play is irresistible theatrically. As a young reader of Shakespeare, I was drawn in by the swooping language, diabolical atmosphere, and terrifying idea of a character getting his deepest wish at the cost of his soul.

I think of “Macbeth” as Shakespeare’s most psychological tragedy only not like “Hamlet” which revolves around the most introspective character in all literature. Macbeth doesn’t spend much time contemplating himself he soliloquizes early and they concern his plans more than they do his feelings.

It’s that way outward psychology that gets me about “Macbeth” The world reflects inner reality. Even the occult in the play is tied up with Macbeth’s thoughts. The weird sisters don’t tell him what he must do to become king they tempt him by predicting his future greatness because ambition is already eating away at him.

The challenge for any actor playing Macbeth lies in those moments when glimpses are afforded us of what this person may be wrestling with morally or emotionally at any given point in this action packed story. In live theater especially, it can be hard to keep track of Macbeth’s qualms amid all the thrilling witchery and suspenseful criminality.

“Macbeth” demands focus flexibility. One reason it may have a higher success rate on screen than on stage is that film can more easily shift between special effects and close-ups.

The new film, starring Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma, does both. Beginning as a stage production that was filmed in London, it is being shown in select theaters on Thursday and Sunday. Fiennes (a world-class classical stage actor who directed and starred in the film version of Shakespeare’s craggiest tragedy, “Coriolanus”) and Varma (who played Ellaria Sand on HBO’s “Game of Thrones”) are finishing a run in the sold-out STC American theatrical presentation at Sidney Harman Hall.

Directed by STC Artistic Director Simon Godwin, this modern dress “Macbeth,” an adaptation by Emily Burns that largely sticks to Shakespeare’s text; having watched it on my laptop, I can’t claim ideal viewing conditions for appreciating the full impact of the staging.

The manufactured battlefields were nothing compared to those scenes of murder, I thought. These witches in their street clothes look like a troublemaking girl gang. Godwin uses them as a chorus watching scenes they have no part in, and I couldn’t tell you why but he makes it work; their presence becomes charged with some kind of meaning.

What is clear though is that the Macbeths are out of their depth in this pact with evil.

Fiennes’ Macbeth is an old soldier: experienced and hardened, yes but also world-weary. (His loyal companion on the battlefield Banquo played by Steffan Rhodri, looks even older) Both caked in blood after a hard won victory ready for retirement maybe somewhere more temperate on the Scottish coast perhaps; not too noisy after all the racket of their campaigns.

That Macbeth has been dreaming about being king for some time is suggested by his response to the witches’ news that he will “be king hereafter” “Good sir” says my edition of the play’s Banquo “Why do you start and seem to fear Things that do sound so fair?”

This note in the text is one of those small opportunities Shakespeare provides to clarify that Macbeth isn’t just a puppet of fate. Fiennes doesn’t really take it instead, he does what he can with an early aside in which Macbeth is already scheming to remove Malcolm the king’s eldest son and heir apparent from his path to the throne.

But Lady Macbeth doesn’t yet have her talons into him. Harold Bloom used to delight in pointing out that they have the best marriage in Shakespeare. He wouldn’t say so if he saw this production.

Varma’s Lady M clearly runs things around here. Scolding tones full of maternal frustration. Infuriated at her husband’s indecisiveness. When his qualms about regicide get the better of him, she dresses him down. “Bring forth men children only” he tells her, kneeling before her and pressing the side of his head against her womb as if he could crawl back in there.

Fiennes’ Macbeth is slow of speech gives you an idea what Hamlet might have been like had he survived and learned the art of power politics. I’m sure Freud would have a field day with this one for my money, it’s nothing that can’t be explained by an oedipus complex. This pale warrior has a frightened boy inside him who doesn’t want to cross mommy.

Even before Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost at the banquet, he has already adopted some version of Hamlet’s antic disposition: laughing strangely and behaving erratically. Lady looks like she’s about to slap him. But when Banquo shows up freshly murdered at their party… well, let’s just say that’s when things really start to come apart for poor Macbeth.

Just a fraction of Hamlet’s philosophical turn of mind, and Macbeth would not have murdered the king. But Fiennes had earned my sympathy for the character a rare thing in productions of this play in my experience. Even when he casually orders the death of the Macduffs as if telling the cook what to make for dinner that evening there is still something humanly tragic about a man who has lost himself.

Neither Lady Macduff (Rebecca Scroggs) nor Macduff (Ben Turner) could be described as actors’ roles they are devastatingly moving in their bareness. Shakespeare knows how to throw an audience off balance.

At the castle though things are bottled up. The gruff way her husband moves on with his business is the most tear-jerking aspect of Lady Macbeth sleepwalking into her guilty death.

It is with ironic antithesis that the paths of the Macbeths diverge. She may not be a fourth witch impervious to guilt but rather mortal woman who cannot keep her sins buried.

Macbeth has lost all feeling indeed but one thing capacity for emotion itself. Fiennes lets us know just how much he has lost. I’ve always found it easier to identify with and excuse a younger Macbeth’s vaulting ambition however, in “The Tragedy of Macbeth” (2021) directed by Joel Coen starring Denzel Washington alongside Ralph Fiennes as well-meaning but misguided fathers haunted by death and barrenness, power becomes nothing more than an empty pursuit for these men who have nothing left to live for.

Watch Macbeth For Free On Gomovies.

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