For a play that’s supposed have a curse on it, Macbeth sure is popular. Maybe that’s part of its appeal, in the same way that the “haunted” house in a neighborhood is the one the kids most want to get into. It also doesn’t hurt that the play has a swift, straightforward plot; contains multiple occasions for action-movie-style thrills–ghosts! witches! sword fights!–and comes as close as Shakespearean tragedy ever does to having a conventionally happy ending (i.e., the evil usurper dies; the rightful heir gets the throne–I trust I’m not giving anything away here).
Whatever the reasons, Burning Coal Theatre Company’s current Macbeth is the fourth I’ve seen in the last eight years, following efforts by PlayMakers Repertory Company, the Somnambulist Project and a touring company at N.C. State. The three earlier shows differed in various ways: The State production was set in present-day Africa and featured a mostly black cast, while the PRC’s witches were outfitted like early-1990s Madonna wannabes, head mics and all. What all three productions had in common was that they didn’t seem to have given much thought to what happens inside the main character’s head. Unfortunately, Burning Coal’s Macbeth continues this not-so-proud tradition.
Among Shakespeare’s major tragedies, the tendency to ignore the hero’s inner turmoil seems unique to Macbeth. You don’t see actors and directors assuming that Othello, for instance, is a natural-born hothead who instantly suspects Desdemona, or that Lear is a calm, wise ruler misled by scheming advisors. Othello is steered into jealousy and painfully learns of his error, Lear has wisdom beaten into him by suffering, and how these things happen is at the heart of the plays. But what kind of protagonist do we get in most (I’m tempted to say all) productions of Macbeth? A nervous, inward-looking Hamlet-in-armor, who questions and fears his own ambition from the moment the witches confront him on the heath. It’s a great interpretation–if you’re searching for an out-of-the-gate excuse for ranting and agonizing. But if you start there, you leave the character almost nowhere to go.
You’re also forced to ignore some of Shakespeare’s keenest irony. “How is it with me when every noise appalls me?” Macbeth asks when he hears the famous knocking at the gate. Any man who can seriously ask that question while standing in the dark, covered in blood, having just murdered a houseguest who also happens to be his king–well, such a man is usually so brave he takes his courage for granted and is not likely to be suffering from an excess of introspection. The tragedy of Macbeth is that he’s a stolid, literal-minded soldier, barely aware of his own ambition and blindsided by his capacity for evil, who happens to have been cursed with a vivid imagination he can neither control nor suppress. (Significantly, it’s a visual imagination: He sees the dagger, Banquo’s ghost, the line of future kings, without ever suspecting they might exist only in his head.)
Macbeth’s redemption, such as it is, comes when he realizes what he has become, accepts his doom and vows to fight on anyway “with harness on our back.” He’s the reverse of his clever but unimaginative wife, who can plot elaborate schemes and carry them out without pity, but who can’t see that such acts may have long-term consequences. When her blindness falls away, she goes mad. Such inward conflicts may not seem like ideal material for rousing drama, but Shakespeare knew how to make psychological crises dramatically compelling (to put it mildly). Without a clear view of Macbeth’s inner turmoil, the Scottish Play is just two hours of sword-and-sorcery huggermugger about prophesies and dynastic succession and the collapse of a seemingly happy marriage.
Which is, alas, a pretty good description of Burning Coal’s production, directed by Alexander Yannis Stephano. Scott Eberlain is an athletic Macbeth, but he plays the entire role in a mood of fevered anguish that soon becomes monotonous. Lynda Clark, as Lady Macbeth, gives a more varied performance and is more comfortable with the play’s convoluted syntax than anyone else on stage, but her superiority is relative: She creates a two-dimensional character in a one-dimensional world.
The rest of the actors–with the exception of Phil Crone’s Duncan and Stephen Day’s Banquo, both of whom die early–tend to deliver their lines so rapidly that they sometimes become unintelligible; on the few occasions they slacken the pace, the energy falls with it. Stephano’s staging is competent but unimaginative, and it has some surprising lapses, such as the overlong, under-rehearsed sword fight between Macbeth and Macduff. The show also suffers from its location: the warehouse-like gymnasium of the Achievement School in North Raleigh.
Burning Coal has mounted some first-rate shows in the past, from its premiere with Rat in the Scull back in 1997 to last year’s Night and Day. Macbeth seems to have been put together by an entirely different outfit. Maybe there’s something to that curse, after all.