Saturday, March 15, 2008

An oft-told tale

I saw Macbeth a few nights back in Brooklyn. I am not a Shakespeare scholar so, unlike the play, this review will be short.

Sorry, I couldn’t help the little joke. Although it came in at just under 3 hours, the production moved right along and I was never bored, at least not for long. Had I been able to understand half of what they were saying, I probably wouldn’t have been bored at all.

As long-time readers are aware, I am a shallow critic. Hell, even if you just came here and read the above paragraphs you probably figured that out. I don’t have any grand theories about the stage or screen. I’m not a member of the genius director’s school, nor the great actor’s. Mainly I am interested in story. I can appreciate good cinematography or stagecraft as well. But it usually comes down to I liked it or not.

Why or why not? The answer is almost always found in the writing. Great acting, directing and stagecraft certainly enhance a well-written work, but can rarely, if ever, save a poorly written one.

Macbeth? I thought the stagecraft great and the acting fine. As a writer, it’s difficult for me to do justice to the staging, you really have to be there and see it for yourself. I’ll just say that I liked it. A lot.

The acting? It was marvelous. Frankly, I’m impressed that anyone can memorize so many strange words, much less pronounce them coherently. The actors did both. Well done, I say.

But the writing? I’m sorry Mr. Shakespeare but that play sucked. As poetry, I grant you, it had its moments, But a play is not a poem. The plot is a tired retread of the writer’s better work. The characters are whiny and unsympathetic. Their motivations are a complete mystery. Oh, sure, plenty of people want to be king and you might say that’s an obvious motivation, but you would never get that from the words of Macbeth. More likely he was just motivated to find something else to whine about. The question that drives the plot is “when will someone shut these people up?” The answer? Not soon enough. I tell you.

A big part of what makes me such a shallow critic is that I refuse to do research or consider any kind of historical connotations around a work. I would say “it is what it is,” but then I’d have to bash my brains against a wall for using the cliché of the day, so I’ll just say that I believe that the best criticism comes from total ignorance. I don’t give a fuck who wrote the goddamned play. I don’t care what history has to say about it. If it doesn’t work from a perspective of total ignorance, it just doesn’t work. Well, maybe sometimes, but for now that’s my story.

Yea, yea, yea. I get up on my box and say all that so righteously, right, but in this case I actually did some research.

The thing that struck me most about Macbeth was that it told the exact same story as Richard III except from the perspective of a pathetic whiner rather than an unrepentant schemer. That and Macbeth wallowed in special effects and violence. My thesis was that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth when he was young and then grew as a writer and produced his masterpiece -- Richard III.

So I looked it up and, as is not unusual, got it entirely backwards. Richard III was one of his first plays, Macbeth one of his last. That makes sense as well. Apparently in his dotage, Shakespeare cribbed from his earlier, truly great work.

Like many washed up writers, he added violence and special effects to try to cover the lame-assed writing. Where Richard III was fiendishly twisted and direct, Macbeth is loaded up with witches, ghosts, silly prophesies, and sword fights. I’ll be a dollar to your dime that the next remake ends with a mushroom cloud over Dunsinane.

Anyway, although I thoroughly enjoyed the theatre-going experience, I genuinely detested the play. Unlike normal people, however, that made me want to see it again and as fate would have it, TMC had a Shakespeare night and I caught the end of Orson Welles’s Macbeth and the entirety of Olivier’s Hamlet. This was an interesting juxtaposition because just days before I had read an article in an old New Yorker (abstract here), which discussed Olivier and Welles’s claims to greatest Shakespearean actor ever and discussed those very movies.

So for good measure, I actually bought Welles’s Macbeth and watched the Richard III that features Ian McKellen for like the hundredth time. All that to get a little more context.

You must understand. Although poor chuckling is a clown as well as a shallow critic, I am aware in some deep dark corner of what passes for my mind that all serious people consider Shakespeare to be one of the greatest writers ever and Macbeth to be one of the great masterpieces ever produced by humankind. Ninety-nine out of one hundred and five historians included Macbeth as an example of what they would give superior beings from outer space to demonstrate our worthiness to life in this galaxy. So I ask, who am I, poor chuckling, to belittle the master’s masterwork and piss urine most foul on five hundred years of learned critics? And it’s not just Shakespeare upon whom I pee, but the great Lawrence Olivier as well. His Hamlet blew chunks. And Welles’s Macbeth? Let’s not even go there. The headgear was interesting. Beyond that, I shall not speak.

So to sum it all up, if you haven’t seen Richard III with Ian McKellen, go out and rent it immediately. As I said above, I am a story guy and rarely moved by great acting. Well, Richard III is one of humanity’s great stories and McKellen’s acting is possibly the best I’ve ever seen. The staging is quite good as well.

I’m sure if Macbeth were alive he’d whine about it. Richard, however, would dispatch him with a smirk and some pointed snark. Hamlet would also do well to steer clear of good Richard.