Patrick Stewart is a tough act to follow, but Hipgnosis isn't afraid: they've plunged into the roughened seas of the Lower East Side with one of New York's first Macbeths since Rupert Goold brought Mr. Stewart and Kate Fleetwood to our fair city for a brief reign of terror, first at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and then on Broadway.
This is also probably the first Manhattan Macbeth since another foul, bloody reign ended and a new, unusually dark-skinned thane became the hopeful leader of a violent nation. This color-neutral Macbeth, with the great Julian Rozzell in the title role, seems especially appropriate today. We tend to think of the play as being about lust for and corruption of power, about tyranny, cruelty and comeuppance, but this production seems to stress the fate of Scotland as much as it does those of its individual characters.
"I think our country sinks beneath the yoke," cries Malcolm as he and Macduff hatch their plan to take down the freshly minted tyrant; "It weeps, it bleeds; and each new day a gash / Is added to her wounds." The two vengeful warriors shout through this crucial scene — too much so — as if to pound home the message that their mission is infinitely larger than themselves.
A good Macbeth must have, at minimum, a good Macbeth. The Hipgnosis team has tapped Mr. Rozzell, a founding member of the group and an actor of great range, magnetism, and subtlety. Lanky and sinewy, he prowls and arches over the stage, which is actually a brightly lit pit like a wrestling ring. As Macbeth battles conscience and guilt, sometimes reduced to crawling like a bug on the scuffed and bloodied white floor, the lights never dim. It's meant to suggest the broad-daylight productions of Shakespeare's time, with all atmosphere and suspense generated purely by the words and action.
Mostly, it works. The able cast is co-anchored by Elizabeth Mirarchi as a diminutive, highly focused Lady Macbeth and Richard Ugino as Banquo, both Hipgnosis regulars who shone in very different lights in The Caucasian Chalk Circle last year. Under John Castro's straightforward direction the characters march simply from scene to scene, stolidly pushing Shakespeare's inexorable story towards its fated conclusion.
The gauzy witches are a little scary and a little funny, their white wrappings vaguely resembling the nurses' outfits of the Stewart production; the banquet scene with Banquo's ghost is played partially (and I think intentionally) for laughs, a choice which ironically pays off by deepening our feeling for Macbeth's pain. Only occasionally, as in the build-up to Macbeth's downfall, when scenes fly by in quick succession, does the lack of scenery and lighting seem to strand the actors in an uncomfortable, Beckettian limbo.
This production can't help but labor in the shadow of its titanic predecessor. But, avoiding any temptation to bend Shakespeare out of shape for the sake of originality, the Hipgnosis group has realized a stirring, straight-up Macbeth. Mr. Rozzell's performance, with its youthful, blazing, and animalistic intensity, alone makes this production worth seeing, and there's a good deal more as well.
Macbeth runs through April 19th at the Flamboyan Theatre, Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Educational Center, 107 Suffolk St., NYC. Tickets at Smarttix or call 212-868-4444. Photo courtesy of David Gibbs/DARR Publicity.