Double Trouble

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Macbeth may not be Shakespeare's most profound or probing play, but it certainly is his most direct. Instead of introspection, &quotThe; Scottish Play" is all about motivation, action, and of course, blood. Its themes of ambition and revenge are universal and easily followed--perhaps even, identified with--which has allowed this 400 year-old play to be set in almost every milieu imaginable. Orson Welles famously moved Macbeth from Scotland to the Caribbean. A recent production in London updated the play to today-s war-torn Africa. And of course, Akira Kurosawa-s Throne of Blood set Macbeth in feudal Japan.

But directors aren-t the only ones who-ve tinkered with Macbeth--actors and writers like to as well, and two notable examples of this were recently on display here in Los Angeles.

The first of these was staged at REDCAT and was titled Macbeth (A Modern Ecstasy). This one-man Macbeth stars British actor Stephen Dillane. Dillane is a performer of limitless talent, an actor who uses his body, facial expressions, and voice in the subtlest of fashions. His performance in Tom Stoppard-s The Real Thing (in London and on Broadway) was a touchstone of contemporary acting. At one point in that production he managed to convey centuries of English tradition with a simple gesture: the casual swing of an imaginary cricket wick.

So the notion that Dillane could play all the characters in Shakespeare-s tragedy was not inconceivable. In fact, if anyone could do it, why not him? Well, Dillane does play all the parts--but sadly, only one of those parts makes an impact. Not surprisingly, that part is the title role.

Luckily, Macbeth is (after Hamlet) the longest part in Shakespeare--so there is some enjoyment to be had. But the rest of the shortened text and pretentious staging can only be called a well intentioned failure.

Naturally, one of the most problematic aspects of this production is how Dillane plays Lady Macbeth. It must be said that the actor does try a novel thing--he recites much of her dialogue in French. This is not completely untethered from history; but unfortunately, it is completely ineffective dramatically. The audience is already quite distanced from the characters (since all of them are being played by one person) so this gimmick is the final dagger, severing any connection between Lady Macbeth-s emotions and the viewer.

This is not helped either by the fact that Dillane also uses the much more common trick of raising his voice to a high falsetto when speaking Lady Macbeth-s lines. The result is that her scenes feel like a parlor game at a theater queen-s dinner party--imagine someone impersonating Blanche DuBois playing Lady Macbeth. At moments, it-s that bad.

A daring actor is always going to make mistakes. For Dillane, who nobly screwed his courage to the sticking place with this Macbeth, it-s a minor one--and not surprisingly, given the play, it-s a mistake of ambition, not talent.

The tiny Globe Theatre in West Hollywood was also home to an adaptation of &quotThe; Scottish Play," Eugene Ionesco-s 1972 Macbett. Wisely following Verdi-s lead with Otello, Ionesco knew that the best way to adapt Shakespeare is to drop an &quotH;" from the title and replace it with an extra &quotT.;"

Also like Verdi, director Neno Pervan feels that Shakespeare works best with music--in this case, techno music. When the play opens with two women in black lingerie raising up from the floor to &quotget; down" with a man dressed only in a black speedo, it-s easy to think that Pervan is simply setting the play in a seedy Eurotrash dance club. But as the production goes on, it becomes clear that the Sarajevo-born director is trying for something more. Just as Ionesco tried to connect Macbeth to the cold war, director Pervan is trying to connect it to the present. His vision for this is not always clear or coherent--although when the play ends with Duncan-s son proclaiming himself &quotEmperor; of Emperors," one does get the point.

This political element does differentiate this adaptation from the REDCAT Macbeth. Both productions favor cleverness over true dramatic engagement, which makes them merely interesting experiments, filled with ambitious sound and fury; but at least this Macbett wants to be signifying something.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.