Macbeth's Young Frankenstein Moment
By Adam Casdin
By William Shakespeare
149 W. 45th St.
Box office: (212) 239-6200
What's really disturbing about Macbeth,
August: Osage County, and Young Frankenstein is, surprisingly,
that they are amped-up and over-stimulating in similar ways: broad humor
and unpredictable flashes of blinding strobe light (Young Frankenstein);
cartoonish emotional cruelty (August, where it's not enough
to have one sister in love with her first cousin, he also has to be
her half-brother); and a shock-and-awe (sound and fury?) staging (Macbeth)
where actors are pitted against the light and audio effects.
I have my own version of Macbeth in
my mind, a sense of how it should be played, and maybe that's part of
my problem with the current production. But really, that opening scene
where the soldier on the gurney writhes and screams his dense, metaphorical
battle narrative is the problem. Could anyone understand his words?
I don't think so. Instead, we get what information we need visually.
It no longer matters that through this narrative Shakespeare presents
us with a type of storytelling--heroic, epic even--that he uses as a
counterpoint to his tale's origin in our own dark desires.
My impression is that director Rupert Goold believed
audiences wouldn't understand half of what was being said--maybe he's
right?--and therefore gave them the emotional tenor of the characters
through a broad delivery assisted by audio-visual prompts. And that's
the problem: Young Frankenstein-August-Macbeth converge in
a theater where ambiguity is out and amplification is in. Why leave
us scratching our heads, wondering what in the world just happened,
when you can sit back and watch familiar feelings fly. I may not expect
Young Frankenstein to make me question my reality, but a joke
can surprise me into seeing the world from a different perspective.
I'll suspend my disbelief and say that Mel Brooks can even do this with
a penis joke. That Young Frankenstein is humorless is probably
not a surprise. That there's no ambiguity in this production of Macbeth
is a tragedy. Lady Macbeth comes on so strong in our first meeting with
her that she's hardly human, or inhuman. She's a stock character here,
mostly. And Macduff, a troubling figure in the play, doesn't worry us
much. He comes round in the end and saves the day.
And, sticking with the play's opening, how can
you not have the witches, Shakespeare's frame for all that follows,
open the play? Juxtaposed against their supernatural vision, the Macbeths'
unnatural worldview, calculatingly human, emerges. In this staging,
the witches remain onstage nearly the entire show, malevolent ghouls
orchestrating the mayhem. And yet, in some sense, Shakespeare casts
his witches as strangely, weirdly sympathetic--kicking against their
mistreatment at the hands of the world's rump-fed runions--ambitious
for power no less than Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Real evil arrives only
in mock form: Malcolm's pretended "avariciousness" is there at the play's
end, not only as a test for Macduff, not only to suggest that everyone
is manipulating everyone else, but to give us a view of a truly horrifying
articulation of the dark prospect that human ambition, not directed
to an appropriate object, as Bill Clinton once put it, opens before
us. Against that example, Macbeth's descent into the inhuman is a profoundly
human, almost understandable problem.
A set of ideas came together in my mind as I
was trying to articulate my frustration with the performance. I'm still
working it out, but it has to do with Shakespeare's writing for a theater
without naturalistic presentation--David Garrick's innovations were
nearly 150 years away--where stylized declamation was the mode. And
so language carried the action, both physical and emotional. Stage business
was relatively restricted, as were the visual cues that later would
help us read a character. Shakespeare had to get across the emotional
tenor of his work through language. This current production overruns
language with visual and aural prompts that seek to clarify meaning.
Instead, their appeal to our senses foreshortens the complexity. The
play of language has lost, is lost, to the production. Similarly, August's
pyrotechnic dialogue represents a loss of faith in language's power
to engage and move us. In that show, words are employed as the equivalent
of the weirdly aggressive strobe lights in Young Frankenstein,
a relentless assault on our ability to think for ourselves, just as
the large-type readings and technical effects overwhelm Shakespeare's
poetry and magic in this version of Macbeth. When this production
slows down--as when Macbeth untwists a cork while unraveling his intentions--we
are reminded that a simple gesture can create a space in which the words
can work on us, and we can work on the words.
Ultimately, Malcolm's unsettling test, where
he reveals an unrestrained vision of human desire run amok, seems the
basis for the production values of this show. That the production originated
at the Chichester Festival Theatre before moving to London's West End
means it's not only on Broadway that the hurlyburly's won. Rather than
give our thoughts space to unfold, Rupert Goold has joined Mel Brooks
and Chicago's Steppenwolf Company in following Malcolm's mock boast
to "Uproar the universal peace." On Broadway, When Malcolm then claims
"there's no bottom, none,/ In my voluptuousness," a claim that provokes
Macduff's warning, "Boundless intemperance/ In nature is a tyranny,"
his words sound less like moral corruption than like another showbiz
Voluptuousness has won. And that brings to mind
William Wordsworth's strange, retrospective claim for his poems in Lyrical
Ballads (1798) that they originated in an attempt to counteract
what he called the "savage torpor" of his times. He and Coleridge thought
their poems, in which the simple and the supernatural intersected, did
not simply represent feeling but could spark feeling--fellow feeling--in
readers whose senses had been dulled by the horrifying, overstimulating
French spectacle of liberty and fraternity resolving into tyranny. Readers,
Wordsworth suggested, needed space to recollect their human nature.
With that in mind, I went to see Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n Roll
a few weeks later, expecting to see a similar challenge by intemperance,
voluptuousness, and uproar to tyranny. At least Stoppard grapples with
the limitations of the sensual approach. Then I went home, read The
Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and scratched my head.