Daniel Sullivan’s production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre begins with a soldier strapped to a tree, Christ like, and the three witches milling about, prepping his body for God knows what. It feels malevolent without being foreboding, and that’s good.
Then we realize that film and stage star Frances McDormand, cast as Lady Macbeth, is also one of the witches -- and rightfully bearded as Banquo notes -- "You should be women, / And yet your beards forbid me to interpret / That you are so." McDormand is an actress of great precision and wit; a comic capable of slipping into the horrific with a wink. And so the casting is inspired: this is a Macbeth that springs from a witch’s imagination.
You can feel the play slither into an unexpected and wicked balance. Here is the type of sly poisoning of the soul that Shakespeare imagined. A dash of star peaking out from an unexpected corner of the production, and like Macbeth, we're hooked. Follow McDormand and you follow the evil -- witch, wife, plot, kill, chaos, and a frenzied and terrifying descent into madness. The possibilities are intoxicating.
But Sullivan doesn't take advantage of this propulsive energy, and the production just kind of floats away without purpose or vision. The loss of steam happens within the first 15 minutes. It was as if the director, actors, and everyone else involved decided to quit; that they simply lost the will to bring Macbeth to life.
In the title role, Game of Thrones star Conleth Hill hams and mugs for laughs, behaving as if his mere presence should be enough to satisfy us. There are wild special effects that say nothing about the action on stage; in fact, they distract from it. At one point, an orange moon turns blue and then back again for no apparent reason. The ensemble of actors seem lost to each other, as if they were performing in radically different productions. And the fight choreography is an embarrassment of large clanking swords that tells us nothing of Macbeth or the world in which he lives. They’re just random effects of the night.
The joy of Macbeth is the joy of living at its most savage. I don't know about you, but I always want more, and more, and more of this play -- the witches, the prophecies, the violence, the chaos, the crazed embrace of every dream, every murderous ambition, and every sidelong hope, no matter what the cost. Without that headlong rush into hell, it's just reciting lines.
Macbeth runs through April 10th at The Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley. For tickets and information go to www.berkeleyrep.org.