Macbeth, by William Shakespeare, edited and directed by Melia Bensussen. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Gregory Boover, Deaon Griffin-Pressley, Ella Loudon, Thomas Brazzle; photo: Daniel Rader
"Then well it were done quickly."
Jonathan Croy as Macbeth; photo: Daniel Rader
Director Melia Bensussen's edition of William Shakespeare Scottish Tragedy will be famous for its brevity. Nine actors take on fourteen roles while the original play features 28 roles and a chorus playing countless apparitions, lords, gentlemen, officers, soldiers, murderers, attendants and messengers. Five acts have been reduced, as they generally are nowadays, to two acts and the scene that ends Shakespeare and Company's first act (Act III, Scene IV) - the banquet scene - is repeated as the opening of Act Two. In its first appearance we have two ghosts and in the second rendition the ghosts are absent altering the perspective of the scene from Macbeth's to that of everyone else. It seemed pointless to do it twice with only the elimination of the visuals for a rationale. Had the director given the scene a greater sense of difference, Lady Macbeth's reactions for example, it might have made sense, but as there was no major alteration it was just indulgence to make the audience sit through the same thing twice. After all, no one had forgotten what happened in it during the intermission.
Not that the audience didn't remember much of the missing scenes, characters, speeches, and so on. A fair majority were rankled by omissions made in Bensussen's version of the play. From around the not very crowded auditorium words, phrases, sentences, gasps and tsks could be heard periodically during the performance. It seems to me that in spite of the wonderful portrayal of the title character by actor Jonathan Croy this is not the play to take the uninitiated playgoer to, nor the long-term fan of the Scottish play. The former will never really understand what's going on and the latter will be over-infuriated by the loss of the witches, the assassination of Banquo, and other lost moments, including the truncated speeches.
Croy is quite wonderful as Macbeth the lesser. He misses out on the passionate regard for Lady Macbeth and he withholds the wonder at the witches prophecies for they don't really exist in this edition. Still he manages the power and the passion for his position. He gives us the glory of station and the idealism of a man turned lustful for power. There is something rather insipid in Macbeth's lack of understanding of how to handle control of a kingdom, a reflection - accidental I wonder - of the current regime under which we are living with a similar potentate dominating the seats of the division of powers with a single-minded attitude. Croy is a master of comic timing and pacing and he is also a master of line delivery. There is nothing he says that isn't clear as a bell and as straightforward as possible. For that, much thanks. His comedy timing transfers well to his dramatic reactions in this role.
Nigel Gore as Porter; photo: Daniel Rader
As King Duncan Nigel Gore rules the moments he is given with a regal and honest sense of character. Later, while being murdered in his bed, Gore appears in the highly comic role of The Porter. With some new lines about viagra and some delicious comic gestures, he wins the night in this much coveted role. Later in the play, unannounced in the program, he become a doctor sent to observe the madness of Lady Macbeth. He also plays Duncan's ghost, not often seen in this play. Gore is such a good actor that there is never a misplaced moment, gesture, grimace or grin. In fact, he makes each of his roles different and yet identifiably his own.
Almost as good in their roles are Thomas Brazzle as Macduff, one of the young actor's best appearances to date, and Deaon Griffin-Pressley as Malcolm. Ella Loudon, playing Banquo, managed to make most of her lines indecipherable with an accent so thick and broad that it damaged words to the point of non-recognition. Mark Zeisler did very well as Ross, one of the most compassionate characters in the play.
Tod Randolph as Lady Macbeth; photo: Daniel Rader
Gregory Boover made good on his multiple roles although they were indistinguishable from one another. Still his words were clearly spoken and his choreographed movements were well delivered. In the sleep-walking scene Boover took over the role of waiting-gentlewoman and proved it didn't matter who had been watching Lady M in her mysterious nighttime jaunts through the palace.
It is Lady Macbeth who sets much of the tone of the play and Tod Randolph gives her an apathetic haze in this version. Her words speak of passion and craving but her delivery spoke of controlled aversion. Randolph, in the sleep-walking scene calls for the elimination of her stains but they are never cursed, never "damned" as Shakespeare wrote, but merely spots that haunt her mildly. The missing word, coming as it does so early in the speech, drives the emotional reaction to her need to expunge the evidence that doesn't actually exist. It calls for a heavenly response to this hellish condition she has brought upon herself through her actions and her inspiring her husband to action. The calmness of the scene, followed by the news of her death, left one feeling that she died too soon and too easily. Randolph is such a fine actress that to have deprived her of the intensity of her character here was to deny her ability to do it justice which I am sure she could have done from top to bottom, but as directed by Bensusson she was just a woman with a dream that she shoves into reality without recourse or remorse of any kind.
Zoe Laiz as Hecate; photo: Daniel Rader
The worst excision made by Bensusson is the lack of presence of the three witches, particularly in the first scene of the fourth act of the play. They are introduced as a voice-over near the top of the play, though not as the opening scene, and are replaced by the constant presence of Hecate, who observes the entire play from her omniscient place in the atmosphere. In Act Four, traditionally, all of them are confronted by the newly crowned king who wants reassurances but is denied them only to have his worst fears confirmed by apparitions given him. Without that sequence Macbeth is left a madman without any cause for it.
Zoë Laiz plays Hecate as a pregnant apparition. She also portrays Lady Macduff as a pregnant woman making me wonder of Laiz herself might be pregnant (I have confirmed that she is not; it is merely a costume decision on someone's part). I could understand the pregnancy for Macduff's wife who already has several children including Fleance who makes a tenuous appearance in this version. But Hecate's state seems odd, unless she contains the other three witches who remain uncast and offstage somewhere. Laiz's voice as Hecate is echo-miked and hard to understand in the very few lines she has. Her Mrs. Macduff is nicely played, the horror in her face as she understands what is about to happen to her becomes clear, is wonderfully true to the character. Sadly, Bensusson has denied us the death of Banquo and other critical scenes, so it is nice to have this one played out at least.
Christina Todesco has designed a fascinating and flexible set; Olivera Gajic has delivered timeless costumes and Dan Kotlowitz's has provided excellent lighting, although now and then I had to wonder why lights flashed on for no reason at all. Brendan F. Doyle's sound design was excellent. There is a new credit in this show's program "Violence Designer" Ted Hewlett. The show featured some violence, so Bravo, Ted. I wonder, though, could Bensusson not have directed violence?
This is a Macbeth for those who know the play well enough to know what's missing, but not for those who know it so well that excisions that abound will destroy the work. See it for the performances of Croy, Gore, Brazzle, Zeisler and Laiz. See it if you love Randolph and can forgive her loyalty to a director who just doesn't seem to get what Lady Macbeth is all about.
Macbeth plays on the Tina Packer Playhouse Stage at Shakespeare and Company, 70 Kemble Street, Lenox, MA, through August 5. For information and tickets go to www.shakespeare.org or call the box office at 413-637-3353.