One thing the public knows — or thinks it knows — about Daniel Craig is that he’s tired. The actor has been frank about the brutal costs of playing James Bond. The franchise aged him, monopolized him, and shattered him, physically, from shoulder to calf to knee. His walk (a chin-up, liquid swagger) has pain in it now thanks to 15 years in that part. So in Macbeth on Broadway, when the 54-year-old Craig swings heavy in a fight, he grabs immediately for his lower back. Is that auld Macbeth’s lumbar twinge? Or Craig’s? Or Bond’s? It doesn’t matter. Scars make the men; they stitch all of them together.
Almost tenderly, then, the production drifting around Craig touches him only lightly. It’s an unusually bare staging for Broadway, stuffed with ideas but stripped clean of folderol. For the majority of the company, director Sam Gold has settled on a kind of still-in-rehearsal vibe, with big events whirling up out of an empty theater lit dimly by ghost light. Who is a witch and who is a laird in any single moment seems fluid — appropriately for a cast hamstrung repeatedly by COVID setbacks, anyone might play anyone. In contrast, Craig and Ruth Negga, as Lady Macbeth, are incontrovertibly stars, gliding across the space like slow, gleaming peacocks. They are dressed differently, conceived differently, even move differently from the rest. The result is oddly cool and lonely. Shakespeare wrote a bitter tragedy about a man who kills his king and tumbles down the chain of being from human to beast to insect to dirt. But at least he shared a reality with everyone else.
To describe this Macbeth, therefore, you have to work concentrically. In the outer layer, there’s the main production, which is so inviting you mistrust it. It starts with chat and laughter: In a prologue, the ultracharming Michael Patrick Thornton welcomes us to Macbeth, makes a series of jokes about saying the play’s name, asks us to murmur the word into our masks (“Feels good, doesn’t it, to cast a little spell?”) and offers some historical background on Shakespeare and James I. Behind him, actors in street clothes assemble, smiling and affectionate. They keep smiling even as they hoist a man up by his feet like a hog, cut his throat, and drain his blood. His jugular spurts; they never stop patting his back. When it comes to scaring the life out of you, this awful bonhomie is more effective than a thousand Psycho violins and jump scares (which the production will, annoyingly, get to in a few acts). A supportive cult capable of embracing someone and simultaneously drinking his blood is an image out of deep horror.
Gold’s best thoughts are all represented in the first 20 minutes. The witches (sometimes everyone in the cast, sometimes the trio of Phillip James Brannon, Maria Dizzia, and Bobbi MacKenzie) use the blood for their evil posset, the potion they’ll offer Macbeth out on the heath — one of the show’s recurring images. Also, out of this show-starting chaos comes Craig, walking briskly to the lip of the stage. He notices something, wipes it up with a handkerchief. Gold kills two swine with one blade here: He depresses the audience’s applause for the big guy (it all happens so quickly) and inserts a time-looping grace note. The trick in Macbeth is to make the audience see what’s invisible: air-drawn daggers, demonic spirits, justice, etc. Gold, his set designer Christine Jones, and lighting designer Jane Cox do wonders with handheld fog machines, whooshing portable clouds around so people seem to disappear into the murky air. But making things vanish is one thing. How can they make us see what isn’t there to begin with? They have an answer: Gold and movement director Sam Pinkleton so precisely choreograph this initial sequence that it replays in your mind when necessary. Several acts later, a guilt-stricken Lady Macbeth will sit in exactly that damn spot as she goes mad over an imaginary stain. We suddenly recall Craig standing there with his blood-smudged handkerchief — we “see” the mark with her.
After Craig’s handkerchief moment, though, the two productions diverge — one show cast with local stage stars being dry and hilarious and creepy and another with glitzy Hollywood folks. I’m inclined toward the Brechtian former. The witches keep coming up with ways to gross us out, and it’s delightful to watch Danny Wolohan and Thornton fist-bumping each other as two dim guys who get talked into killing Macbeth’s friend and rival Banquo (Amber Gray). Downtown hero Paul Lazar finally makes Shakespeare’s difficult porter scene work, in which a drunken doorkeeper cracks jokes and a beer while bad things are happening in the king’s bedchamber. I have always loved the porter scene in theory because it takes place in real time (a terrible knocking at the gate counts out the seconds), whereas the rest of the text goes at a breakneck, unnatural pace. This is the first time I’ve actually enjoyed it in performance, though, and its silliness sharpens the terror of what comes next.
In the interior, nested, more conventional production, Craig and Negga are intense, an electric couple (like the Macbeths) lost in their own little bubble where they wear gorgeous outfits and plot a coup. Everyone is actually not equal in the State of Scotland — designer Suttirat Larlarb puts slouchy, drab, regular-degular clothes on everyone except for them. When Macbeth has his chat with the murderers, he wears heavy cream pajamas and a green-and-pink paisley robe so sumptuous, so brocade-stiff and silky-snuggly, that I reached out toward the stage to pet it. Negga variously wears fur and a chemise and a high-necked cheongsam and a golden evening gown. Must be nice.
“There’s no art / to find the mind’s construction in the face,” complains King Duncan (also Lazar), but Shakespeare is making his own joke there. In the theater there is most certainly an art — faces are the whole game. Because Craig has a still one with a deep brow, it can genuinely be hard to read his mind’s construction. The astonishing Negga, though, is all expression. Ideas scroll across her wide, wide eyes, and you can actually witness how Lady M imagines their paired way into sin, then crime, then punishment. When the two are together, you can even see his thoughts reflected on her moon-bright face. When he’s without her or in soliloquy, Craig seems merely weary or angry or nuts, especially when he wears those handsome PJs into battle.
Macbeth is full of fearful symmetries. Punishment matches crime, every time. Lady Macbeth violates nature by insinuating plans into her husband’s thinking; her mind then destroys itself. Macbeth’s first action, even before the events of the play, was to cut a traitor’s head off; something, uh, similar happens to him. Oracles fold in half, as does language (“fair is foul, and foul is fair”), as does poor, tortured Scotland. So this doubleness of Gold’s production may be intentional — but I found it hampered the show in certain ways. The twin-star system in the middle of a whirling, weirder show creates velocity but not connection. It’s a production that makes you think, but it did not make me feel.
Well, that’s not true. Amber Gray’s Banquo moves between both worlds and makes us feel in both of them. I mean, of course she does. “Fail not our feast,” Macbeth says to her as she rides out before dinner. He has Banquo murdered before the soup course, but she shows up dutifully anyway, crossing over the mortal threshold, an eerie fog boiling out of her hooded cape. Gray also returns to play the nurse to Lady Macbeth, compassionately holding her hands as the queen writhes with self-destruction. Alone of all the other performers, she seems to match the central pair’s mood of elegant despair, but she maintains her part in that odder, mocking, external system. Each time she appears, she makes the out-of-joint production make sense. From her cloud of smoke, she extends an elegant hand to toast us, the specter at the table who knows how both sides live.
Macbeth is at the Longacre Theatre.