Macbeth — Old Globe Theatre, San Diego — (a review)

I saw Macbeth last night at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. I was bracing for the worst, since reviews–both professional and from my actor friends who’d seen it–ranged from neutral to negative.

I have to say: I REALLY liked it. It was so much more enjoyable than I was expecting. I especially found the first half of the show compelling. I enjoyed the staging and the weird, avant garde choices (stop motion, nebulous time setting, rapid, seamless scene changes, etc). I even (kind of) liked the doll / mannequin they used for Lady Macduff’s child (Macbeth spoke the child’s lines, emphasizing his strange immaturity and regression).

Acting was consistently excellent, as it always at the Old Globe,with a few exceptions. But it was Macbeth himself, played by a Benedict Cumberbatch-type named Jonathan Cake, who stole the show. (Not sure why they couldn’t find an American Macbeth. Do we really need to import Shakespearean actors from England? But that’s another post). Cake was SO good—as if he’d been rehearsing for Macbeth since he was 11. Interesting, manic line deliveries that usually emphasized Macbeth’s descent into madness. A vulnerability in the character I’d never seen before—a weird childishness that made sense as he grew more anxious and mad. Brilliant. I had the distinct impression that the standing ovation at the end was for him rather than the show itself. That certainly true in my case.

I’ve never enjoyed reading Macbeth because the language is so different—sparser, choppier, not as flowing and pretty—from other great plays (Lear, Othello, R&J, Hamlet, etc). But in performance at a break-neck speed, it worked really well. I heard a few audience members complaining about “comprehension” problems—Macbeth might have been a little too manic and swift for them. But I didn’t miss a word and I understood the essence of certain lines for the first time thanks to his delivery.

The production had a few weaknesses that were fairly obvious from the get-go and kept the production from earning an “A” in my book. (And, yes, my book is a literal book with literal grades. I’m THAT guy. This production gets a B+, for example.) Old Globe gets in trouble sometimes because they’re determined to include actors from TV and film who are not well trained in classical theatre. This was the case with Lady Macbeth, who just wasn’t very strong. She had no menace or gravitas or allure and seemed intimidated by the language. Plus, she’s probably 4’5 and looked like a kid next to the 6’4 Jonathan Cake. She couldn’t project and threw away her famous monologues including the out damn spot speech. Ditto with the actor who played Duncan (who was a silly, grinning, Jerry Lewis-like king). Ditto with Macduff and Lady Macduff who seemed to have wandered onto the set from another play. Macduff was especially unimpressive to me. His attempts to emote in the scene in which he’s told of the massacre of his family were almost laughable.

As I watched, I realized that not having swords in Macbeth means some very boring fight scenes. I mean, you’ve got guns and you’re five feet away from each other. Not a lot of toe-to-toe combat is going to take place at that point. Also, the downside about having a doll playing Lady Macduff’s son is that there is no fear or sadness when he “dies.” You think: “Well, that murderer has got himself a new toy. Good for him.”

In general, though, I really enjoyed the play and recommend it to anyone who has the time to see it before it closes on Sunday. It held my attention the entire time–impossible to look away. Macbeth delivered so many of his lines directly to the audience it really kept me involved. Loved the banquet scene. Loved Banquo and other supporting characters. Great porter scene. Loved the witches scenes (played by inmates of an insane asylum). Love the tomorrow and tomorrow speech, delivered from his hospital bed. So many fantastic scenes with a lot of risk-taking by actors and director. Not everything worked, but it was fun to watch.

So of you who saw it—Am I wrong? What gives?

Rob Crisell's photo.
Rob Crisell's photo.

Author: admin

Rob Crisell is an author, actor, teacher, and Shakespearean in Temecula, CA. He teaches poetry and Shakespeare with the Murrieta Valley Union School District as part of its Visual and Performing Arts (VAPA) program. He is a Shakespeare lecturer with Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. He has acted in The Merchant of Venice, Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged), Baskerville, Much Ado About Nothing, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, The Tempest (Prospero), Macbeth, Othello (Iago), and others. Over the quarantine, he has acted in Much Ado About Nothing and Merry Wives of Windsor (with Nathan Agin’s “A Working Actor’s Journey production) and King Lear (Quarantine Players). He has written and performed several one-man plays featuring Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Shakespeare in America. He’s the author of Shakespeare’s Book of Wisdom: Advice on Living a Wiser, Happier Life from William Shakespeare & Friends (DePortola Press 2018). His 2016 TED Talk is “How NOT to Hate Shakespeare.” His verse adaptation of Sophocles’ Electra will be produced by Full Circle Players in Riverside, California in October 2020. He is a graduate of Yale University and George Mason University Law School. For details, visit www.robcrisell.com or www.facebook/robcrisellactor/.

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