Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Arin Arbus
Macbeth is a cautionary tale about powerlust and its comeuppance—so what better time to stage it than now, as popular revolts topple tyrannical regimes around the globe? But Arin Arbus, in a moody production for Theater for a New Audience (through April 22), downplays the work's broader political implications, reducing Shakespeare's Scottish epic to a relatively straightforward personal tragedy—the tale of one man's hubris, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing larger. For the title role, then, she has cast an actor grand enough to anchor such an individualist production: John Douglas Thompson, who tracks the gloomy thane's path from personal triumph to international disgrace with uncanny gusto.
Arbus does not resort to gimmicks: the actors do not wear Soviet uniforms or carry tommyguns. This Macbeth is medieval, with iron-studded leather armor and a perpetually smoke-hazed stage, as though an unseen light board operator were chain-smoking in the rafters. (As the production designer on the recent film Black Death put it, "Wherever you went in the Middle Ages, it was smoky. If you don't have smoke, you don't have the right atmosphere.") Like Arbus's dignified Measure for Measure last year, this production is practically purist: if it wants to achieve a nightmare effect, it uses old-fashioned masks; Macbeth's hallucinations—like Banquo's silently accusatory ghost—remain, for the audience, unseen, accentuating the madness that's overwhelming him.
Such outsized mental states are Thompson's forte. The actor—a stage legend in the making since 2009, when he wowed New Yorkers as Othello and The Emperor Jones—is awkward when he initially takes the stage, overstressing his speech and blinking too emphatically. (Graham Winton, as Banquo, at first outshines his colleague with eloquent diction, plain emotions and dependable composure; he lives up to the First Witch's description of the character as "Lesser than Macbeth, and greater.") But Thompson's elocution creates complex intonational melodies; his is a musical tongue, a talent that aids him, in the early acts, through his impeccable emotional leaps between swagger and terror.
Few actors can be so immediately, convincingly afraid, a feeling Thompson mutates post-regicide into paranoia and pomposity. (He's encouraged by Annika Boras's Lady Macbeth, who's less typically conniving than vulnerable and loyal, a committed wife in awe of her loving husband's greatness and potential.) Thompson rivetingly traces Macbeth's tragic emotional arc into insanity, arriving at Amin-level crazy, a despot who clambers up his throne, spits at empty space, climbs the scenery as he devours it. It's a tortured and panting star turn in a production that's ultimately a star vehicle, a tribute to a staggering talent strutting his few hours upon the stage. There's little more to this Macbeth than his Macbeth—but his Macbeth is huge.
(photo: Gerry Goodstein)