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 formula.
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