‘Confusion now hath made his masterpiece,” cries Macduff upon learning of the murder of King Duncan in Macbeth. Confusion then meant destruction, but as played by Corey Stoll in a lean, stripped-down production directed by John Doyle, Macbeth is the master of rationalization. This Macbeth is something of a ninny, a lightweight who lounges on a throne that seems far too big for him. He leans back and puts his feet up, like a restless teen. He uses soliloquies to plead with the audience, a palm sometimes raised in supplication, as he talks himself into the most foul deeds. He’s so thick that when told “ten thousand” are coming for him, he asks whether that means 10,000 geese. It’s all too appropriate when those soldiers arrive bringing Birnam Wood to Dunsinane; Macbeth has tricked himself into rationalizing murder and in the climax it’s as if nature itself has repaid him with a trick of his own.
Stoll, tall and brawny with a trademark shaved head, has become an essential Shakespearean in New York in recent years, having anchored a first-rate production of the thorny Troilus and Cressida during the Shakespeare in the Park festival in 2016, then following up by playing Brutus in Julius Caesar in 2017, then Iago in Othello in 2018, also in Central Park. Stoll again does an American accent and again gives off a contemporary quality (the actors in this Macbeth are clad in what look like unobtrusive Banana Republic blacks and grays — trousers and pullovers, accented with large tartans worn over the shoulder). But he doesn’t drag Macbeth into our moment so much as build a bridge between 2019 America and medieval Scotland. He and Doyle, a Scottish Brechtian known for bringing avant-garde touches to his Broadway productions, shed a lot of light on that bridge. This Macbeth is an exceptionally incisive take, edited down to an hour and 40 minutes with no intermission. Performed on an almost-bare stage with minimal use of props, it is as sharp and compact as the daggers (not swords) with which the combatants slay each other. (It’s playing through December 15 at the Classic Stage Company in Greenwich Village.)
Nadia Bowers, Stoll’s real-life wife, makes a superb “dearest partner of greatness,” her blond, athletic-looking Lady Macbeth sensuous and ruthless in equal measure as she makes Macbeth hop to her every horrifying suggestion. Doyle cuts Macbeth’s speeches into short musings in the early going, so that her 22 lines in the “unsex me here” soliloquy make for a longer, and much more powerful, speech than any of Macbeth’s passages to this point. Her wickedness, unlike his casual and callow perfidy, is rigorously considered. If she is made of steel, he has a core of porridge. Yet they represent two paths to the same bloody destination; one need not set out intending to do evil to be as reprehensible as those who do so with clear purpose. Whether you drive into a moral ditch or topple into it, you come out equally dirty.
Doyle creates a woozy, staggering tableau of how one leader’s flaws can spread across and corrupt a nation like rust. Rationalization leads to confusion leads to destruction. The Thane of Ross notes that it’s hardly possible to even know where you stand when there is so much treachery about, to stay afloat on a sea of wild rumors and even wilder facts:
cruel are the times, when we are traitors
And do not know ourselves, when we hold rumor
From what we fear, yet know not what we fear,
But float upon a wild and violent sea
Each way and move
To put it more concisely, everyone in Macbeth’s Scotland is starting to ask himself, as Banquo does, “have we eaten on the insane root/That takes the reason prisoner?”
Macbeth’s treachery upends the Scotland that King Duncan envisions in which “signs of nobleness, like stars, shall shine/On all deservers.” Any such clarity is anathema to Macbeth, who hopes to frolic in the confusion of darkness: “Stars, hide your fires,/Let not light see my black and deep desires.”
The violence seems all-pervasive, like a weather system. It’s as if a fog of evil is dampening and darkening the land. Malcolm, the son of the murdered king, laments the broader confusion and destruction spreading outward from Macbeth’s half-considered acts:
I think our country sinks beneath the yoke;
It weeps, it bleeds, and each new day a gash
Is added to her wounds
He frets that even the defeat of Macbeth would be woefully insufficient to undo all the damage wrought: “My poor country/Shall have more vices than it had before,/More suffer, and more sundry ways than ever.” Macduff sounds the same piteous chords: “O nation miserable!” he exclaims. “When shalt thou see thy wholesome days again?” Ross chimes in: “Alas, poor country, Almost afraid to know itself . . . Where violent sorrow seems/A modern ecstasy.” Seeking to erase the woes he has caused, Macbeth offers a cowardly suggestion: Maybe we could all just forget the whole thing. “Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,” he suggests, as Lady Macbeth bleeds from the stabbings of conscience, “Raze out the written troubles of the brain.” But there is no erasing any of this.
As he sums up events in the play’s climactic speech, Macbeth is wrong yet again, and I don’t think this had ever occurred to me before seeing Stoll’s interpretation. The beauty of the language shouldn’t disguise how obtuse Macbeth is when he gives himself a pass because everything is meaningless anyway — “Life’s but a walking shadow . . . a tale told by an idiot.” As if he himself were not the idiot who turned his country upside down.