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Chicago’s MacBeth Angry and Awful


Here’s an immediate, not entirely considered  — yes, exactly what bloggers are excoriated for by haughty traditional media types — gut level response (one that may be re-visited) to last night’s MacBeth, performed by the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre:

It knows only one emotion. Every character on stage spits and seethes with anger.  When news that fathers and wives and children and kings are murdered, when daggers and the dead appear, when forests move, wives die and witches meow…anger is the only response. The result is one of the worst presentations of this play I’ve ever attended. 

I can only assume, because of the uniformly uni-dimensional acting performances, that director Barbara Gains ordered her toupe to attack the text with only one thing in mind: hostility. It guts the play of all subtly. Murders its humanity. Renders it unaffecting. MacBeth is a decent man who gradually descends into hell on earth. He’s torn, conflicted…as with most of Shakespeare’s important characters he changes. Ben Carlson’s MacBeth doesn’t change. From the moment he steps onto the stage a victorious general, to when he leaves it with a dagger in his gut, his MacBeth is the same man. We feel no sympathy for his awful ordeal. No loss. It signifies nothing.

This, despite some clever conceits. Gains has her witches play paparazzi and strippers. False unreliable prophets, frequented by de centered, hollow men. those unloved. Motivated by cheap sex and celebrity worship. MacBeth is in constant need of affirmation and external validation.  Lacking center he is insecure about his manhood. Goaded into action because of a fragile sense of self, he loses his soul. His behavior contradicts his morals.

There are some good ideas here. Some good visuals too. Karen Aldridge’s dead, Marat-like,

Lady MacBeth in a transparent bath tub full of diluted, outed blood is particularly striking.

What this production lacks is life.


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4 Responses to “Chicago’s MacBeth Angry and Awful”

  1. ed Says:

    MacBeth’s first words are “So foul and fair a day I have not seen.” In other words, he’s not exactly a guy who sees the sunny side of life. He is then immediately tricked by the three witches into pondering a more prosperous and regal existence, thereby playing up the “foul” nature of the days ahead of him.

    At the risk of gross oversimplification: Hamlet was a decent man caught into regrettable familial vengeance. Lear was a decent man tricked by Goneril and Regan. MacBeth, on the other hand, was a guy who had serious psychiatric problems from the onset. As Duncan says, “There’s no art / To find the mind’s construction on the face.” MacBeth’s mental affliction is as clear as day. And that is the tragedy. Whether MacBeth could have been helped at any point along the way, had not Lady MacBeth steered him wrong, is, indeed, one of the grand subtleties of the play. But make no mistake: for the most part, MacBeth is just as much of a scoundrel as Richard III. And that as why he is so compelling. So I can understand an inexperienced or inept director interpreting the play this way and going greatly over-the-top. This is a play containing much in the way of murder and hostilities. And the challenge of adapting it properly is to reveal the man that could have been beneath the psychosis.

  2. Nigel Beale Says:

    If MacBeth was starved of attention as a child, then Richard lll was physically abused… Richard is pure evil. MacBeth is, I think, weak, ambitious, and largely immoral…but set him up with the right woman and he might not have gone wrong…

    Orwell wrote on MacBeth as follows, and I agree with him:

    “Nearly always, in Shakespeare, you have the spectacle of a good man, like Othello or King Lear, suffering misfortune; or of a bad man, like Edgar or Iago, doing evil our of sheer malice. In Macbeth the crime and misfortune are one; a man whom one cannot feel to by wholly evil is doing evil thins. It is very difficult not to be moved by this spectacle.”

    He thought MacBeth Shakespeare’s most perfect play.

  3. Levi Stahl Says:

    I just saw the CST production last night, and I have to disagree. Yes, it was acted at a fever pitch (a lot of sound and fury), but my wife and I found ourselves swept up all along. Macbeth wasn’t just angry throughout: at the start, he carried what Ed mentions above, a sense of a weak character in perpetual need of external validation, a clear contrast with the confidence of Banquo (who was, by the way, very well-acted); that desire for ratification allowed for a spectacularly good Lady Macbeth–not inherently evil, but seduced by fortune and seeing it as her duty to supply the lack in Macbeth. We watched her visibly overcome her inhibitions and scruples in the face of what she saw as his indecision–she became the helpmeet she perceived him as needing.

    Actually, what really struck me last night was how inessential almost all of Act IV and V are. The first act offers us the strangeness of the Weird Sisters, Lady Macbeth’s growing resolve (and shrinking humanity), and Macbeth’s curdling; act two merely steel-traps the consequences, offering along the way only the poetry of the Weird Sisters, Macbeth’s soliloquy after his wife’s death, and the enacting of prophecies that solidify our understanding of Macbeth as someone who always looks outside the self for his confidence.

    Still, the whole play is worth it for my favorite line, the driver of all noir since: “I am in blood / Stepp’d in so far, that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er.”

  4. Nigel Beale Says:


    We clearly saw different plays. Perhaps the troupe took it upon themselves to change…unlike the MacBeth that I saw take and leave the stage lo these many months ago.

    ‘something wicked this way comes’ will always be, for me, one of the Bard’s best.

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