MACBETH (Arden): Fast but not furious [critical mass review #2]

Note: This review is part of a new feature section on PhindieCritical Mass. Each week during the play’s run, a reviewer from this publication will return to the Arden to reconsider the work and respond to previous critical takes. Read more about this here.

Jahzeer Terrell as a soldier, Ian Merrill Peakes as Macbeth, Terence Macsweeny and Sean Bradley as Soldiers in MACBETH at the Arden. Photo by Mark Garvin.
An energetic and visually engaging MACBETH. Jahzeer Terrell as a soldier, Ian Merrill Peakes as Macbeth, Terence Macsweeny and Sean Bradley as Soldiers. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Alexander Burns’s production of MACBETH at Arden Theatre Company is energetic and visually engaging, but it lacks ferocity and substance.

With Shakespeare the director always faces a choice of what to cut from the original text, even with a short play like MACBETH. Burns, like many directors before him, chose to start the play by leaving out the second scene where Macbeth’s valor and brutality on the battlefield are described with moments of exceptional poetry. That scene is turned into an action sequence that fits the fast pace of this production, but the cut is problematic because the second scene gives us essential information about Macbeth’s character and it partially explains why he later sees murder as a plausible way to a fast “promotion”. Directorial choices like this make the production skip opportunities for exploring the depths of Macbeth, which sells short the complexity of the character and the play for the sake of a faster pace and thrilling visuals.

Yet much is salvaged by Ian Merrill Peakes’ formidable portrayal of Macbeth that shows an impressive grasp on Shakespeare’s language. He gives us a murderous king, but also the self-doubt and hesitation that are crucial to Macbeth’s character—even if the performance doesn’t always have the intensity one might hope. And yes, his “tomorrow speech” is original and compelling. Unfortunately his counterpart Judith Lightfoot Clarke as Lady Macbeth lacks the presence needed for the role. Her performance has its moments, particularly at the beginning of the play, but overall it’s monotonous and the lack of chemistry between the Macbeths is painfully noticeable in a play where sex and sexuality play a significant role. The rest of the cast is as uneven as the leads. Christopher Patrick Mullen as the porter and Aimé Donna Kelly as Lady Macduff deliver superb performances while Josh Carpenter’s Malcolm is thoroughly lukewarm and almost everyone else seems content to recite their lines instead of owning the potent poetry in them.

Ian Merrill Peaks in MACBETH at Arden Theatre Company. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Ian Merrill Peaks in MACBETH at Arden Theatre Company. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Most reviews have lauded the sound, set and lighting design, and for a good reason. Several audience members were genuinely startled by the thunderous storm while the melodramatic music and apt lighting worked well with the contemporary aesthetic of the production. The dramatic set design took full advantage of what the Arden stage can do to such an extent the impressive combination of set, sound and lighting design threatened to overtake the often underwhelming drama unfolding on stage. The costume design, on the other hand, reverted to a gimmick any avid theatergoer has seen one time too many: the costumes were a combination of different periods, which supposedly makes a rather obvious point of universality. It’s a redundant notion in a play like this, so the only thing the costumes accomplish is making the actors look like they were dragged through a flea market on their way to the stage.

For all its flash and energy, Arden’s Macbeth is a bloodless production that’s entertaining to watch but leaves you cold. [Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd Street] March 5-April 19, 2015;

Other reviews of MACBETH:



10 Replies to “MACBETH (Arden): Fast but not furious [critical mass review #2]”
      1. Yes, well, Hamlet is one of Shakesy’s worst plays. I’ve never understood why people think so highly of it.

        1. I am one of those people, but that different readers/audience members can find different things in Shakesy is part of what makes him much produced to this day. For me its the beauty and insight of that play’s language, the life of its central character, as if he can be barely contained by the pages of the text, and the enduring relevance of his internal struggle: “Our wills and fates do so contrary run/ That our devices still are overthrown./ Our thoughts are ours, their ends none our own.”

          1. There’s a lot of greatness in that play, particularly in the language and philosophy of it (also, I’ve always thought the second act of Hamlet is Shakesy at his funniest – it’s LOL stuff for sure). I love reading and discussing Hamlet, but an actual stage performance of it tends to be unsatisfying because to me the story or drama itself is an “artistic failure”. That’s why I think of it as great writing, but not a very good play.

          2. Well put. It’s a good play because the dramatic action illustrates the philosophical questions which the language raises, but it’s a tough one to realize, and always unsatisfying. It’s a better play in my head than on stage.

  1. Gotta cut in: Ninni, I think Bill means any weakness in a play, falls on the shoulders of the playwright. Chris is right, T.S. Elliot thought Act 2 Sc 1 of Hamlet was/is completely useless.But you guys, maybe you both walk away from Hamlet feeling unsatisfied because Hamlet is himself plagued with angst right up to his death Hamlet is basically unfulfilled. He doesn’t even get to hear the news from England about who will take the Danish throne before: “The rest is silence.
    O, O, O, O. (He dies).

  2. I agree that any weakness in the play falls on the shoulders of the playwright, but a weakness in the production of the play does not. That’s why I was asking for clarification.

    As far as Hamlet goes, I don’t think a play is unsatisfying simply because the main character is unfulfilled – the history of narratives is full of examples of (main) characters left unfulfilled at the end of a play that don’t stop the play from being satisfactory. I like the futility of Hamlet’s ending, I take more issue with – for example – whether indecisiveness to Hamlet’s degree works dramatically. I’ve always thought of Hamlet and Coriolanus as polar opposites to each other in the sense that Hamlet is all articulation and no action while Coriolanus is all action and no articulation, but it’s questionable how well either ambitious attempt actually works on stage. I applaud the idea of Hamlet because of what Chris says about the dramatic action illustrating the philosophical questions and many other reasons, but it still doesn’t make me enjoy the play when I see it. Reading Hamlet is as enjoyable as reading a good Montaigne essay, but would I want to see a Montaigne essay read out loud to me on stage (which is what Hamlet essentially is anyway)? Probably not, unless Mark Rylance was reading it – god knows I would listen to that man read out loud his utility bills.

  3. Yes, Mark Rylance could pocket a Tony with a cold reading of his electric bill.

    I suspect that Shakesy wanted to frustrate the groundlings with his Hamlet to the point where they yell at Richard Burbage: “Get on with it, you royal git bastard ” Yes, Hamlet is very frustrating but Hamlet is a prince, a politician. When the Federal Government shut down in October of 2013. I was yelling like a groundling at C-span, saying : “Get on with it, you gits!”

    I rarely watch C-span for the same reason you don’t like Hamlet. Its frustrating. It doesn’t seem like anything ever happens when you get a bunch of bureaucrats in one room. All they do is talk like Hamlet.

    T.S. Elliot believed Coriolanus was a superior play to Hamlet because it was more logical. But since when is life logical? Therefore I disagree with you and Elliot. I believe Hamlet is flawed because human beings are flawed, and often too paralyzed by fear too act.

    That said: Coriolanus is exhilarating play, written nine years after Hamlet.

    Most Bad Ass Moment: When Coriolanus returns from battle, and cuts to the bone of matter, spitting:

    “What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues,
    That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion,
    Make yourselves scabs?”

    It’s like: “Marry me.”

    Coriolanus is a man. Hamlet is teenager.

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