Does understatement befit Macbeth? Does the play necessarily need a Sturm und Drang staging to work, actors whose faces are frozen in maniacal expressions as they wash imaginary blood from their hands and descend into madness? At the Public Theater's production of the Scottish play in Central Park a few nights ago, I was reminded that it is a viewer's duty to battle preconceptions when watching a performance, be it theater, music, dance, a movie or the most minimal of readings. Was I disappointed because I could not fathom a Macbeth in which the leads (in this case, Liev Schreiber and Jennifer Ehle) play inward rather than outward? Or was I disappointed because I read their potential act of subversion as dull, not daring? Schreiber is an actor with keen instincts, and I find it hard to believe he didn't accomplish exactly what he set out to do—or what director Moisés Kaufman instructed him to do; it was puzzling to see him so pallid.
A first step in thinking about this is the directorial problem that's destroying New York theater; it's a problem I clearly spend way too much time thinking about. Our city's scene is plagued with an abundance of hacks with no imagination and no ambition, grovelling servants indebted to both their moneybag masters and audiences assumed to be braindead. Let's not even get into the utter lack of any kind of artistic intent: Do these so-called directors even have the minimum amount of know-how required to oversee a show? Why would Kaufman even tolerate the embarrassingly amateurish performances of Teagle F. Bougere and Sterling K. Brown as Banquo and Macduff, respectively?
Thinking back to memorable Shakespeares I've seen, it's obvious that both very traditional and very experimental approaches work, and that the result doesn't hang on the actors' skill (sorry, actors!). Among my favorite are two completely different productions of King Lear. The first was staged by Ingmar Bergman at the Théâtre de l'Odéon in Paris, around 1984 or 1985. It was in Swedish with no surtitles or simultaneous translation, and while I admit that I don't remember specifics, the overall feeling of being powerless while being completely sucked in visions (those of Bergman and Shakespeare) crashing together remains vivid in my mind. It's a feeling of surrender I've been looking to capture again ever since, what drives me back to the theater again and again and again.
Spectators fled Needcompany's King Lear at BAM in droves in 2001; I still hear the snap of seats being released as people abruptly got up and left during the show. They wanted to make a point, they wanted everybody to hear how displeased they were. The play had been imploded from inside, Jan Lauwers tearing it apart like the alien coming out of John Hurt’s chest. That Lear was grandiosely insane, unpredictable, dangerous. What the hell was Lauwers doing? I’m still not sure, but then, I like being baffled at the theater—a state of mind producers are afraid of eliciting in their audiences, but one I find preferable to benign contentment.
This somehow makes me think of Deborah Eisenberg's Twilight of the Superheroes, which I'm currently reading. Eisenberg's usually praised as a perfect stylist, and she is—every story, every sentence is crafted like a Delft miniature. But how luminously dull that perfection is.