Last night, we attended the Berkeley Rep production of Macbeth. There are basically two things that get us to the theater: famous actors, and our friend Arthur, whose plays we try to attend whenever possible. The famous people this time were Frances McDormand and Conleth Hill (the latter, who lacks name recognition, is always described as “Varys from Game of Thrones”).
It was my first time seeing Macbeth on stage, so my comparison was to film versions, which is a bit unfair. I watched Polanski's Macbeth last week, and so was always thinking about the blood and gore that he placed on the screen, but which here was off-stage.
Whatever disadvantages created by the restrictions of a theater production next to a film version, this production was impressive. The set design provided a bigger scale that you might imagine, and while the use of photos and videos was hit or miss, it added a distinctive touch.
My wife and I are the worst star-chasers ... we attend every play at Berkeley Rep with famous actors (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, Mandy Patinkin, Anna Devere Smith). In this case, we came because of McDormand and Hill, but Hill was so unlike Varys that it was easy to see him as just an actor, and McDormand has done so many different roles that it was also easy to see Lady Macbeth as just another of those roles (she also doubled as one of the witches). Which is to say, the stardom got us in the door, but the skill of the actors is what drew us into the play.
The acting overall was a bit inconsistent, but not enough to be a problem. I've always thought Shakespeare turns Lady Macbeth insane too quickly, but McDormand played her "damned spot" scene brilliantly. It was one of the only times a well-known piece was highlighted ... at other times, it almost seemed like a conscious decision had been made to swallow famous speeches into the norm, which if true is interesting but admittedly off-setting.
Among the actors was James Carpenter, a highly-regarded local favorite ... I wouldn’t be surprised if we’ve seen him before, but if not, we’ve seen him three times now, as he played Duncan, the porter, and Lady Macbeth’s doctor. Each was distinct ... it didn’t feel like stunt casting, or even an inexpensive production saving a few bucks.
Frances McDormand was “better” than Francesca Annis in Polanski’s film, which is no knock on Annis or her performance. But, again, unfair as it might be, Polanski’s movie (which, as I wrote, was more “movie” than “Shakespeare play”) was still fresh in my mind, and since I am such a big fan of that movie, this stage version, which was indeed solid, didn’t quite displace my thoughts about the film.
Finally, I couldn’t help but reflect on the ways I’ve experienced Macbeth over the years. Polanski’s version came out about the time I became a film major, and given my lack of knowledge about Shakespeare, my sense of the play was a bit warped. (Another Macbeth I saw and loved was Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood.) Twenty years later, I was an English graduate student taking a course taught by the noted Shakespeare scholar Janet Adelman. I was way out of my league ... the best I could offer in terms of my past connection to Shakespeare was to say I’d seen Forbidden Planet many times. Still, when I want to learn more about Macbeth, as often as not I turn to Adelman. Now, of course, I’m just an old fart with a blog.
One last anecdote, unconnected to Macbeth. One of the times we saw Arthur was in King Lear. The actor who played Lear did a good job ... his name was Jeffrey DeMunn, which meant nothing to us. Well, a few years later, we started seeing DeMunn once a week, for he had grabbed a regular part on The Walking Dead. Man, I hated his character, Dale ... not the actor, of course, although the better the actor, the more extreme our response might be. Anyway, Dale died near the end of Season Two, and I was very glad (it was actually one of the most emotional scenes ever in the show, which I might have missed because of my silly feelings about the Dale). The reason I bring it up here ties into my point above that we tend to see either plays with famous actors, or plays with Arthur Keng. It turned out King Lear combined both, but we didn’t know it at the time. In fact, we didn’t know it for a long time after that. It was only many years later, when Arthur pointed out that “Lear” and “Dale” were the same actor, that we understood the connection. DeMunn was so good in both roles, we never thought of them as the same guy.