HomeEntertainmentReview | Ralph Fiennes kills it in ‘Macbeth’

Review | Ralph Fiennes kills it in ‘Macbeth’

In a deracinated, begrimed landscape, a cluster of trees marks the only sign of life. Among the rubble are a dusty tire, a car frame, wire netting, some tanks and other mangled implements, all of which testify to the presence of people who have recently fled a makeshift encampment. We think of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The war in Gaza. Violence in Tigray. The hell mouth we’ve stepped into is the pre-show for an “immersive” production of the Scottish play.

This version of “Macbeth,” running through May 5 (after earlier productions in London and Edinburgh), is directed with finesse by Shakespeare Theatre Company’s artistic director Simon Godwin. It takes place in a hangar-like sound stage in Washington’s Brentwood neighborhood, and transposes the setting from 11th-century Scotland to our contemporary world. The three witches who deliver punning prophecies to Macbeth (Ralph Fiennes) have been reconceived as people displaced by war. They wear scuffed sneakers, denim jackets and overalls (Frankie Bradshaw did the costumes) and their faces are streaked by dirt. The script, adapted by Emily Burns, specifies that these figures are awakened by a shared “premonition that their building is going to be hit” by a missile and that they discover their otherworldly powers after the cataclysm.

Macbeth takes their incantations to heart. Rather than wait to share the witches’ paltering pronouncements with Lady M (Indira Varma) in person, the thane of Glamis chooses to send word to his wife in advance of his return from battle. Samuel Taylor Coleridge called “Macbeth” “the most rapid” of Shakespeare’s plays, and this production largely bears this out.

Fiennes, who delivers Shakespeare’s verse with a gripping naturalism, drinks his role to the lees. As one might expect from a man who has played both the fearsome Roman warrior Coriolanus and the dark lord Voldemort (whose name carries a similar verboten charge), he gives a strong performance as a man whose “vaulting ambition” leads inexorably to his downfall. More surprising, Fiennes’s Macbeth is one of the few I’ve seen with a sense of humor, which comes through in the banquet scene and again in his fatal fight with the nobleman Macduff.

Unlike Coriolanus, the Scottish thane is not a nihilistic “thing of blood” who wants to be “a kind of nothing.” Conversing with one of the murderers (there are two rather than the usual three in this production), he confesses to being “cabined, cribbed, confined, bound in / to saucy doubts and fears.” After a regicidal rampage, he finally cuts his engine when he realizes that he has been misled by the witches’ prophecies. After boughs from Birnam Wood descend on Dunsinane, Macbeth is felled as much by an error in interpretation as by his rival’s sword.

Matching her husband in soul sickness is Lady M, though her mind famously unravels in a different way. Varma’s murderous queen is more subdued than one wishes at certain points, but she makes us feel her closeness, in body and mind, with her husband, whom she reads like an open book. At times, Macbeth even concedes her power over him; when he charges her to “bring forth men-children only,” he speaks these lines to her womb on his knees. Tellingly, when they seize the throne, Lady M is the only one who dons a diadem.

She also deserves partial design credit for her advice “to beguile the time, Look like the time”; this production looks devastatingly of our time. The stage is largely devoid of furnishings. All we see is the befogged facade of a concrete-colored residence. A pair of frosted glass sliding doors occasionally open and close like a nictitating membrane. The blood that trickles down the top walls in one scene is easy to miss from certain seats. No one would confuse this production with the sumptuous, Stonehenge-esque Rob Ashford and Kenneth Branagh-conceived production at the Park Avenue Armory a decade ago, but Godwin’s fuss-free version more than makes up for the relative lack of visual spectacle by putting its actors within a few strides of spectators. At one point, a somnambulating Lady M even reaches out to touch a member of the audience.

Less satisfying are the cuts that have been made to some minor roles. There’s no seriocomic porter invoking an “equivocator that could swear in both the scales against either scale servant.” The line may be a somewhat obscure reference to the Gunpowder Plot that racked England in 1605, but “equivocate” has other thematically relevant meanings. One also rues the loss of Hecate in a play that ventures new interpretations of the witches.

As it happens, another “Macbeth”-derived psychodrama is concurrently running at Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn. Compared with the elisions in Godwin’s production, those in Zinnie Harris’s “Macbeth (an undoing)” will likely have Shakespeare scholars stabbing their eyes out.

In this version, Lady M (Nicole Cooper) and Lady Macduff are close cousins, the latter is pregnant with Banquo’s child, the three witches are impecunious neighbors rather than supernal beings, Lady M has had five failed births, and it is Macbeth rather than his wife who sleepwalks. The “undoing” in this revisionist work turns out to be a Chinese finger trap: the more the play tries to psychologize its protagonist and thicken our understanding of the other female characters by building entirely new scenes and subplots around them, the more fragmented it becomes. The idea of a schizoid Lady M is not entirely without appeal, but despite strong performances across the board, the work runs aground fast.

Macbeth, through May 5 at 1301 W St. NE. About 2 hours and 45 minutes, with intermission. Tickets and info at shakespearetheatre.org.

Macbeth (an undoing), through May 4 at Theatre for a New Audience, 262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, N.Y. About 2½ hours, with intermission. Tickets and info at tfana.org.

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