Return to Production

Macbeth (06/15/2000 - 06/25/2000)


New York Daily News: "Fraidy Macbeth"

“Macbeth" is a play about a successful and highly popular man whose restless energy drives him into a decision he will always regret. In that, at least, Kelsey Grammer has something in common with the man he plays in Shakespeare's fierce tragedy. Sadly, this is the only point of contact between them. We know from "Cheers" and "Frasier" that Grammer is a superbly accomplished actor. Only a snob or a fool would underestimate the intelligence and skill it takes to sustain a single character over so many years. The problem here, then, is not that he's out of his depth. It's that he never ventures out far enough to get in over his head. While the vast ocean of Shakespeare's great play stretches out before him, Grammer seems content to paddle around in the shallows. What makes "Macbeth" great is the complexity of the central character. A thug who kills his king and then maintains his power with ever-increasing viciousness, he nevertheless remains all-too-human. At times, he is strong and decisive. At others, as weak and impressionable as wet putty. Astonishingly cruel in his use of violence, he is still deeply sensitive to the enormity of his actions. The job of the actor playing "Macbeth" is to find the emotional truth behind these apparent contradictions. The problem is not so much that Grammer fails to do so as that he doesn't even try. His flat, monotonous performance has a level of psychological insight that makes Frasier Crane look like Sigmund Freud. Grammer has a beautiful voice, and his main concern here seems to be with the way he sounds. If this were an audiotape, it would just fine - for the lines are spoken with exemplary clarity. All that's missing is the acting. To be fair to Grammer, this reticence may well stem from Terry Hands' stilted direction, for Diane Venora as Lady Macbeth is guilty of exactly the same obsession with enunciation at the expense of performance. A distinguished veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Hands directs in his trademark pared-down style. His own stark lighting designs take the place of realistic sets. There's a difference, though, between spareness and dullness. Here, the combination of monochrome design and black-and-white performances merely bleaches all the color from the play. At times, the determination to strip everything to the bone actually makes a nonsense of the drama. One of the play's great scenes, in which "Macbeth" sees the ghost of his murdered friend Banquo at a banquet, is played with just four guests. So instead of the disaster of the king going mad at a formal state occasion, we get the mild embarrassment of the host getting drunk at an intimate dinner party. Hands also plays some silly tricks with the play's ending, cutting one important scene and adding his own lines to Macbeth's death. Since the play is already lost, these awkward intrusions make little difference. But they do point to a director with no clear idea of what he's trying to achieve. The unfortunate effect of all of this is to place a burden on Grammer's performance that it cannot bear. Instead of supplying the richness that the production lacks, he merely adds to the general dullness. What we get is a bland, fast-food version of what should be a feast for the soul - more "McBeth" than "Macbeth”.

New York Daily News

New York Post: "Director Should Have Washed His Hands of This"

The "Macbeth" of director Terry Hands is a production that might have been revolutionary in the 1920s.

Its idea is to reject all of the nonsensical apparatus of scenery and all of the useless trivia of plot to give us a stark psychodrama unadorned and lit by a few tellingly placed spotlights. (Hands is responsible for the lighting as well.)

This "Macbeth" is mainly a series of soliloquies - or spotlit reflections, which amount to the same thing - stripped of context (and text).

There is first Macbeth in puzzled but receptive meditation upon the witches' predictions. Macbeth is impersonated by tall and plump Kelsey Grammer, who has the physique for a man in over his head in the game of bloody murder.

Grammer recites well, phrasing clearly and intelligently; he makes many a compelling point. But his performance lacks the fierce, anguished quality that makes Macbeth make sense.

Lady Macbeth is Diane Venora, a skilled Shakespearean actress who has not here found the role. She poses on a naked stage to reflect on the inadequacies of men and to give her husband courage. But she lacks the voice, the interior ferocity to make the woman rise before us.

The cast wears mostly a version of rehearsal clothes - basic black and leather shoes. Monarchs are allowed a white shirt. There are exceptions and they are disastrous: the three witches are in scruffy, dirty street wear and their presence is pervasive, from the first battle to the last, all of which they dominate.

"Macbeth" becomes a series of speeches on murder and guilt, with battles and murders alluded to in passing. This treatment of Shakespeare results in the disappearance of the social dimension of the play - along with some famous passages of text.

The banquet scene consists of a smallish table surrounded by four chairs: one for the royal couple, two for assistants, and one, kept empty for the slain Banquo, who does not show up. The supernatural types who do the work are the ubiquitous street sisters.

In the final battle, Macbeth reacts to his wife's death on a bare stage stripped to bricks and pipes and lights. Macbeth is confronted by Macduff, whose wife and offspring he has killed. But, lo, it is the witches - according to Hands, not Shakespeare - who finally do in Macbeth in the last analysis.

The restoration of Scotland after the Macbeths is (maybe deliberately) wholly superficial and unconvincing here.

Sam Breslin Wright is weak and unsolid as the new king Malcolm, and Bruce A. Young is a tiresomely mournful Macduff.

Delightful, however, along the way, have been Peter Gerety as a wily, drunken porter and Grant Rosenmeyer as Macduff's witty son.

This attempt to reduce "Macbeth" to its private, interior moments does not work - primarily because Hands has not thought it through intelligently enough.

New York Post

New York Times: "Verily, He Talks the Talk"

Across the bloody fields of Scotland, in the land where the stage smoke swirls and the synthesizers scream like banshees, strides a faceless figure in black, thudding along in thick, corpse-kicking boots. Who is this masked man, speaking so portentously about how ''foul and fair'' his day has been? At last he raises the gleaming vizard of his helmet and there, behold, is a most familiar wide-browed visage: hey, it's one of America's most popular television stars, and, boy, does he look as if he means business.

Such is the nearly anonymous entrance of Kelsey Grammer in the blunt-witted new production of ''Macbeth'' that opened last night at the Music Box Theater under the direction of Terry Hands. There seem to be at least two quite legitimate reasons for this semi-incognito first appearance in the tragedy's title role by Mr. Grammer, who is best known as the charmingly ineffectual shrink on the hit sitcom ''Frasier.''

Across the bloody fields of Scotland, in the land where the stage smoke swirls and the synthesizers scream like banshees, strides a faceless figure in black, thudding along in thick, corpse-kicking boots. Who is this masked man, speaking so portentously about how ''foul and fair'' his day has been? At last he raises the gleaming vizard of his helmet and there, behold, is a most familiar wide-browed visage: hey, it's one of America's most popular television stars, and, boy, does he look as if he means business.

Such is the nearly anonymous entrance of Kelsey Grammer in the blunt-witted new production of ''Macbeth'' that opened last night at the Music Box Theater under the direction of Terry Hands. There seem to be at least two quite legitimate reasons for this semi-incognito first appearance in the tragedy's title role by Mr. Grammer, who is best known as the charmingly ineffectual shrink on the hit sitcom ''Frasier.''

For one thing, it forestalls that disruptive shock of recognition that might prompt some rowdy theatergoer to yell out, ''Where's Niles?,'' in reference to Frasier's television brother. It allows the actor's voice, most un-Frasier-like here as it solemnly intones Macbeth's opening lines, to introduce his character without prejudice.

What's more, in a play replete with images of dissembling -- in which people must ''make our faces vizards,'' in Macbeth's words -- introducing the ambitious Thane under wraps makes thematic sense. As Lady Macbeth (played here by Diane Venora) famously chastises her vacillating husband, his face ''is a book'' that is all too easy to read.

Well, that's what the script says, anyway. To tell the truth, Mr. Grammer unmasked isn't that much more illuminating than he is with his visor down. It's not that he is crippled by his high Q rating. You don't think, ''Hey, look at old Frasier up there.'' On the other hand, you never for a second think that a complicated, conflicted character named Macbeth is up on the stage either, just an actor speaking lines in a melodious bass voice.

Mr. Grammer is by no means ill at ease with Shakespearean speech. (He understudied the role of Macbeth in the ill-starred Vivian Beaumont production of 1981 and received good notices for his Cassio in the 1982 James Earl Jones-Christopher Plummer ''Othello.'') But he seems to have based his performance largely on the first words of Hamlet's advice to the traveling players -- ''Speak the speech, I pray you'' -- and then stopped right there.

The same might be said of most of this production, in which crisp, even violent enunciation is the dominant characteristic. This is, after all, a ''Macbeth'' in which ''Lay on, Macduff'' is delivered not to Macduff but to the audience.

Who says they don't do Shakespeare like they used to? Mr. Hands's staging of the canon's most compact and fastest-moving tragedy suggests what the barnstorming American companies of the 19th century must have been like: potboiler productions emphasizing melodrama over psychology, with a lot of stately actors planting themselves like trees at the edge of the stage and declaiming fiercely and nobly.

Not that Mr. Hands, whose 1984 Broadway productions of ''Cyrano de Bergerac'' and ''All's Well That Ends Well'' for the Royal Shakespeare Company are still fondly remembered, neglects more contemporary touches. He and his designer, Timothy O'Brien, have conceived this production in chic, spare basic black, from the walls of the bare-bones set to the stark, funereal costumes that would blend in easily at any Chelsea opening.

Another nod to more recent vintages of ''Macbeth'' is evident in those sinister muses, the three witches (Myra Lucretia Taylor, Starla Benford and Kelly Hutchinson), who again show up as battlefield scavengers, Mother Courage types gone toxic. (This is, for the record, at least the third such variation on this idea that I have seen.) They are, however, exceptionally loud and declamatory witches, in keeping with the evening's overall tone.

Mr. Hands's general intent appears to have been to present ''Macbeth'' as straightforwardly as possible, letting the ever compelling story carry the audience along. Yet somehow this streamlined, intermissionless version, which weighs in under two hours, has a plodding quality that matches the lumbering and circular steps with which the actors have been encouraged to move.

Part of this lethargy has to do with an overriding literal-mindedness. The sensibility comes across in the radio-play-style sound effects by Tom Morse. (When someone says, ''I hear horses,'' there is an immediate obliging clip-clop.) The same attitude surfaces more annoyingly in the annotative gestures of the acting. When Macbeth begs the earth not to hear his traitorous footsteps, he touches the ground; when he refers to the contents of his wife's heart, he touches his chest; when he wonders if that's a dagger he sees before him, he squints.

Mr. Grammer basically has two gears here -- amoral, confident Macbeth and tender, contrite Macbeth -- and he has pretty much worn them out by the end of his second monologue. He also has a tendency, especially with Ms. Venora, to jump with both feet from one mood into the other, disregarding any steps between.

Ms. Venora, a glamorous Shakespeare veteran who appears to better advantage as Gertrude in the current Ian Schraeger-style film version of ''Hamlet,'' at least conveys feelings of vicious ambition and disgusted horror in the same instant. But she casts her ambivalence with operatic grandeur and, like Mr. Grammer, she sounds all her notes early on.

In their scenes together, as they jerk abruptly between rage and sorrow, contempt and affection, these Macbeths bring to mind Faye Dunaway in ''Chinatown,'' turning her face from side to side and repeating, ''She's my sister, she's my daughter.''

They do, however, provide one electric moment. That's when Macbeth, having ''discovered'' the body of Duncan, describes the mutilated king in sensory detail to a horrified crowd while staring his wife hard in the eyes. It's a private coded declaration in a public situation. ''See what you've made me do,'' he seems to be saying. And it fully justifies Lady Macbeth's fainting in the next moment.

To tell the truth, though, this was the only scene in the entire production that made me sit up straight and prick up my ears. The rest of the evening holds no surprises. No one else in the cast stands out, particularly, as being horribly embarrassing or wonderfully inspiring. As a result, a work that traditionally gallops off the page here does indeed creep in a petty pace from scene to scene.

New York Times

Variety: "Macbeth"

If you're going on an ego trip, you might as well travel first-class. So why is Kelsey Grammer, the lovable star of TV's "Frasier" and a man who can certainly afford luxurious accommodations, returning to Broadway in a poor man's "Macbeth"? As star vehicles go -- and the production is without question a star vehicle -- this underpopulated, underdirected and practically undesigned "Macbeth" is the equivalent of a dilapidated Chevy Nova. The production's paltry texture might be forgivable -- or at least forgettable -- if it surrounded a central performance of great insight or vitality, but Grammer's Macbeth, though handsomely and intelligently spoken, is essentially an empty star turn, a series of fancy speeches magnanimously tossed to the audience as if they were red roses.

Director Terry Hands plays up all the most familiar conceptions about Shakespeare's briefest, bluntest tragedy. Yes, "Macbeth" is an unremittingly dark journey into the mind of a man seduced into evil by his ambition, so the show unfolds on a darkened, bare stage drenched in baleful black paint. A single torch -- the light of good shining bravely in a benighted world -- glimmers at the back of the stage throughout the evening.

And yes, "Macbeth" is a zippy play (for the Bard, anyway) that moves like lightning through its bloody paces, so Hands' production proceeds at a merciless clip, coming in at two hours without an intermission. Actors all but fall over each other making entrances and exits, while the play's disturbed psychological milieu, of the natural order corrupted in extremis, is dutifully evoked by innumerable ominous thunderclaps.

But beyond its speed, darkness and portentous soundscape, Hands' "Macbeth" offers us little. The supporting cast is largely undistinguished, although it may be hard for even the finest actors to create credible performances with no support from evocative staging, atmosphere or even props and costumes. (The wardrobe by Timothy O'Brien, who also designed the skeletal sets, consists mostly of contemporary pants and T-shirts, the latter mostly black, sometimes wrinkled, and on occasion dressed up with belts -- a seriously unflattering look.)

As an aesthetic, minimalism requires far more imagination than Zeffirellian splendor, but there's little in evidence in this production. Less is definitely not more here: The banquet scene, a key turning point in the play, is entirely drained of its dramatic impact by the skimpy production values -- this regal repast is staged with three chairs around a small round table; you half expect someone to pass around a box of Wheat Thins. The show's stark mise-en-scene cruelly exposes its performers, who must try to evoke a complex world and a variety of relationships in brief scenes with only the help of a few spotlights. And unfortunately, Hands, who also designed the lighting, seems to have lavished more attention on the disposition of these spotlights than on the performances of the people trapped within them.

Diane Venora, whose Shakespearean resume includes three Public Theater "Hamlets" (as the prince, Ophelia and most recently Gertrude), is merely adequate as Lady Macbeth. There are no surprising colors or nuances in her portrait of a cold-blooded, grasping termagant, and her sleepwalking scene hasn't much pathos, despite some fancy vocal variations she employs and a climactic, agonized wail. Among the supporting players, Michael Gross stands out for the innate dignity and assurance of his Ross, and Peter Gerety handily seduces audience affection with his pungent comic turn as the drunken porter. But most of the performances are negligible, with Sam Breslin Wright's Malcolm, a key force for good against Macbeth's iniquity, coming across here as a risibly puny figure.

The title role is, of course, a dangerous seducer of ambitious actors. Macbeth is apportioned many of Shakespeare's most famous speeches ("Is this a dagger I see before me...," "Tomorrow and tomorrow..."), each packed with rich imagery and beautiful phrases. And indeed, it's obviously the language that attracted Grammer to the role: He savors the monologues as if they were big pieces of rhetorical candy, delivering them up to the audience with admirable clarity in his potent and appealing baritone. Certainly he far outshines the rest of the cast in terms of vocal grace and textual articulation.

Nevertheless, this is an inadequate performance, because it consists of nothing but prettily intoned phrases. Grammer substitutes eloquent speechifying for authentic emotional involvement in Shakespeare's potentially gripping drama of a man's moral and psychological disintegration. Although the grim set of his square jaw and a tendency to growl indicates Macbeth's increasing brutality, Grammer's usurping king never really becomes a man driven to the edge and beyond by a corrupt soul warring with the specters of remorse. A truly tormented man couldn't continue to address the audience with such consistent vocal refinement, seemingly oblivious to the emotional context of the moment.

If lackluster audiences in previews are any indication, Broadway theatergoers aren't clamoring to see how a favorite TV star fares in one of the theater's most demanding roles. And those who do venture to buy tickets may feel cheated by this uninspired production and its cheesy trappings. They'd be justified in their irritation: For a $70 top ticket, audiences are buying the privilege of spending two hours as hostages to a star's ego.


  Back to Top