Nicol Williamson has brought us a lean, muscular "Macbeth" without a wasted motion. Functioning both as director and star (though not alloweing himself star billing in the alphabetical listing of players), he has given the Circle in the Square, where Shakespeare's shortest work opened last night in an uninterrupted presentation, and the entire current theater scene a shot in the arm.
With scarcely a break between scenes as lights are dimmed on the tessellated playing area to allow for quick exits and occasional changes of furniture before a pool of light introduces the next scene, the bloody and shattering events speed to their conclusion. This is no-nonsense Shakespeare, sparingly costumed (long, loosely-woven woolen pullovers with sword belts are the most distinctive items in the men's apparel, and the women are simply gowned) and plainly but forcefully lighted. Brief passages of organ music punctuate the action at appropriate moments.
Williamson's Macbeth is compelling. One could not have expected it to be less than interesting, but it is much more than that. Once having overcome his initial reluctance and yielded to his wife's proddings to surpass her bloodthirsty ambitions, the lanky, haunted figure is forever restless and increasingly eloquent in his anguish. The final soliloquy, delivered by the ravaged ruler from an elevated throne he mounts in fear and determination, represents a combination of high theatricality and rich expression. It is thrilling, capping an entire performance that is fascinating.
Most of the other male performances are soundly handled, as well, especially J.T. Walsh's down-to-earth and appealing Macduff, John Henry Cox' engaging Banquo, and Ray Dooley's young Malcolm, overcoming his inexperience as a leader to seize the moment. The brief scene between Lady Macduff and her son before their murderers arrive is nicely done by Joyce Fideor and Christian Slater. Banquo's ghost, familiarly an apparition bathed in red or green light, is here just a vacant stool addressed by the horrified Macbeth. And the three witches are vividly set forth, again by the simplest means.
Williamson's difficulties in finding a suitable Lady Macbeth have attracted almost as much attention as Rex Harrison's recent ones in finding a worthy Eliza Doolittle, and the results haven't been any better. Andrea Weber, a very young actress who appeared opposite Williamson in last year's revival of "Inadmissible Evidence," is not untalented, but she's hardly up to this role in which she badgers her lord like a harridan when she isn't behaving like a naughty schoolgirl. It's the production's only serious weakness, and in view of the overall drive, I'm almost ready to overlook it.
Just think: "Macbeth" this week; next week, "Othello." And right here on Broadway.
Shakespeare was wrong. It is not "tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" that Nicol Williamson's Macbeth should be worried about, but last night when the English actor's production of the play opened at the Circle in the Square Theater.
Macbeth is considered such an unlucky play that many traditionalist British actors refrain from mentioning its name - referring to it simply as the Scottish play. Williamson should probably join that club. Certainly the play's recent stage history in the English-speaking theater has been grisly.
The most recent major productions of the play in London and New York have case Ian McKellen, Albert Finney, Peter O'Toole and Philip Anglim as the crazed Scottish king. Only McKellen was successful. Williamson does not join him on that lonely pinnacle.
What went wrong with the present production? One: Williamson is among the most fascinating actors in today's theater. Two: He is a comparatively inexperienced director. Three: Two into One doesn't go.
The production opens with the sight of a cross and the lugubrious sound of liturgical organ music suitable for a congregation gathering for a funeral. Little did we know.
As the playwright himself comments in the play: "Stay you imperfect speakers." Williamson seemed almost to encourage them.
From beginning to end the enunciation and diction sounded stilted, and not infrequently incomprehensible. Williamson himself was not free of personal blame here - for example, he chopped up the "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow" soliloquy with antic abandon. It was determinedly different but patently unsucessful, placing mere oddity where fear, despair, and passion should have been.
Some of Williamson's ideas are intelligent enough - making Macbeth's steward Seyton into the mysterious Third Murderer, for example, or banishing Banquo's ghost, usually seen by the audience, into the recesses of Macbeth's fevered imagination works well enough. Perhaps on the circular stage, thrifty of spectacle, the physical realization of Macbeth's coronation is acceptable.
Yet what is lacking, apart from secure acting and intelligible speechy, is any real concept of what the play is about.
Williamson's own wayward performance as the hero gives the clue to the production's failure. It is not a study in ambition but rather a survey of maladjustment. When Williamson played Hamlet in London and on Broadway, together with the director Tony Richardson, he conceived Hamlet as the archetypal modern man, the irresolutely unfulfilled student, rough of tongue and sharp of conscience.
His approach to Macbeth is similarly cast along contemporary lines - but Macbeth is not a modern man. The naturalistic approach rarely works. To be sure it is effective enough when he is briefing the murderers with the smoothness of a Mafia executive, but at times he seems to be giving an imitation of the TV interviewer, David Frost.
He uses his hands like a bizarre bazaar merchant, and his voice as an instrument in which he puts too much trust.
The rest of the performances - almost without exception - are lamentable. Andrea Weber plays Lady Macbeth as if she were a malevolent, petulant and unduly romantic Juliet. Tom McDermott's ineffectual Duncan is not a single inch a king, but seems more some bumbling bureaucrat. And so it went on. J.T. Walsh and Rand Bridges were modestly successful as Macduff and the Porter, respectively, but had little enough opposition.
The setting, like the production, made great play of the cross, but was otherwise unremarkable, and the costumes had the men dressed for war in some kind of primitive Harris tweed, and elsewhere in Ruritanian tunics. Odd.
The man sitting in front of me spent the entire evening straining his eyesight reading the play and rarely looking up to catch the frequently motiveless incidentals of the staging. By the end I was wishing rather that I had bought a book along with me as well.
Last season the Lincoln Center Repertory Company gave us a ''Macbeth'' with no Macbeth, some vibrant supporting players and a lot of sound and fury signifying terribly little. Last night the Circle in the Square unveiled a ''Macbeth'' with an eccentric, if fitfully intriguing, Macbeth, and nothing else. Is this an improvement? Not really, but, seen in succession, these two vastly different productions at least prove one academic point: if a great play can accommodate all manner of exciting interpretations, so does it allow room for all kinds of wrongheadedness.
Our new Macbeth is Nicol Williamson, who triumphed only a year ago in the revival of John Osborne's ''Inadmissible Evidence'' at the Roundabout. This bristling Scottish actor would seem a natural for the role of Shakespeare's darkest tragic hero, and, by some accounts, he did a fascinating, iconoclastic Macbeth in England in the mid-70's. But that production was guided by the estimable director Trevor Nunn and co-starred the Royal Shakespeare Company. At the Circle in the Square, Mr. Williamson is his own director - or, as it turns out, his own nondirector. The company that surrounds him is so much Birnam wood.
The resulting star performance is not in control. If this play is to gather its tragic power - if we are to see our own frightening potential for evil within its hero - we must believe that Macbeth at some point was a man of nobility and grandeur. While Mr. Williamson's Macbeth isn't quite a monster from the outset, he is a quivering wreck - and excessive ambition seems the least of his ailments. From the opening scenes, we wonder why no one arrests him on the spot. We also wonder why the actor has so drastically narrowed his options and range. You can't chart the spiritual disintegration of a soul that's in ruins to begin with.
Trapped in this blind alley, Mr. Williamson plunges into a series of increasingly odd readings, some of which fracture the cadences of Shakespeare's poetry or submerge them in nasal, Peter Lorre-like hisses and guttural effusions. In the climactic soliloquy, for example, he mischievously puts the emphasis on the ''ands'' and swallows the bleak ''tomorrows.'' At the same time, he acts much of the text, literal-mindedly, with his hands or twirls around in midsentence to address all sections of the arena-shaped house. There are other occasions - upon contemplating the fateful dagger or Banquo's ghost - when the star assumes a crouching position and intermittently addresses the floor.
Here and there, we get some hints of a forceful Macbeth. Cowering within a loose-fitting gray tunic, his face as sodden and vacant as a pudding, Mr. Williamson is both human and pathetic when his wife (Andrea Weber) shames him into facing Duncan's murder with manly courage. Once the act is done, the actor brings a shuddering poignance to his recognition that he has forever murdered ''innocent sleep.'' Perhaps the most effective scene in the entire production is the one in which Macbeth enlists the murderers to slay Banquo. As he alternately browbeats and cajoles his henchmen, Mr. Williamson gives us a devilish, even witty, portrait of a despotic politician trying to mask both his vindictiveness and paranoia.
But these flourishes spring arbitrarily out of the gloom; they're not contained by any valid overall conception of the role. And when the star must play opposite his fellow cast members, he might as well be attempting to strike sparks from damp leaves. Miss Weber's Lady Macbeth is a prancing, if overaged, schoolgirl - shrill, silly and, in the sleepwalking scene, less mad than petulant. Ray Dooley's pinched, chilly Malcolm and Tom McDermott's plebeian Duncan hardly seem preferable rulers to their usurper. Macduff, Banquo and Ross are so unprepossessing and, at times, unintelligible that they could switch roles in every scene without the audience detecting the difference.
As a director, Mr. Williamson's main contribution is to give ''Macbeth'' a religious ambience. Inverted crosses abound - the star even boasts a greasepaint one on his face at the end - and Macbeth's coronation, like the witches' scenes, is presented as a quasi-black mass. Yet neither these conceits, nor the horror-movie organ music and thunderclaps, provide any feeling of hellishness. Nor, for that matter, does the production design, which features a few sticks of furniture for sets, ragtag costumes and a lighting plot that fills the stage with indiscriminate pockets of darkness.
The staging is rudimentary. The cramped banquet scene looks as if it were set in a booth at a fast-food restaurant. The Act V climaxes are almost nonexistent: There is little sense of warfare, and Macbeth is slain in the wings. Although the play is performed without an intermission, a good plan for the leanest and most cyclonic of Shakespearean tragedies, the pace is slowed by unnecessary blackouts and other numbing pauses. Unlike the hero, the audience at this ''Macbeth'' need never fear that it will sleep no more.