Macbeth at Classic Stage Company: Tried, True, and Tired

By: Hadassah Penn  |  November 21, 2019

By Hadassah Penn, Features Editor

At some point during development, every production of a Shakespeare play will inevitably encounter the same question — traditional, or experimental? And then proceed accordingly. But after hundreds of years of Shakespeare and seemingly every variation, is there even such a thing as experimental anymore? 

There’s been no lack of Macbeth productions, especially in New York City. Right now, there’s an adaptation of a Macbeth-inspired movie running off-Broadway. There was an all-women production last spring– not to mention the immersive Sleep No More, which has been frightening theater-lovers and tourists alike since 2011.

So what makes Classic Stage Company’s Macbeth stand out? 

Well. Not much. 

Director John Doyle attempts to add by taking away, as is his career MO. Here, his tweaks have mixed results and generally detract just as much as they contribute. The space is intimate and the slightest bit claustrophobic, mirroring Macbeth’s own isolation and gradual descent. When Macbeth and Lady Macbeth carry out their dark deed, the audience is along for the ride, viscerally, whether it likes it or not. 

All non-essential scenes and lines have been cut, so the script is taut and lively. In such a tiny space, it is vital that all audience members remain quiet and attentive. The cut script skips along at a heart-pounding pace, creating necessary tension and, for the most part, holding audience attention. However, the play ends up sounding like a “Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits” album. The sheer concentration of well-known lines — it feels like every other line is a Very Famous Quote — is distracting. Every jolt of recognition sets the audience at a further remove from the action on stage. 

The cast has been reduced as well, to only nine actors, some of whom play more than one role. This, too, heightens intimacy, but it’s also confusing at times — it can be difficult enough to puzzle through some of the denser Shakespearean dialogue, without having to sort out who’s supposed to be saying what.

Still, the actors are invested. Corey Stoll is a standout in the titular role. Stoll’s Macbeth is morally ambiguous from the start, making his descent all the more believable, if a bit less tragic. The horror here isn’t that of a good man turned bad, but the morbid inevitability of a greedy man’s downfall. Stoll’s loose, lazy confidence and brash line readings are startlingly modern, a reminder that while Macbeth is set in the 11th century, every generation has its Macbeths — and one should take care to watch out for them.

Classic Stage Company’s Macbeth isn’t my first Shakespeare. That title goes to a disastrous evening at Shakespeare in the Park. (It rained; the show ended early. My sister still hasn’t forgiven me.) CSC’s production was my first Macbeth, however. Despite the flaws of this particular production, it was still a thrill to see it live. Back in the day, Macbeth connected with my dark tenth-grade soul, and I’m still fond of it. This production rings a little hollow, but the inherent joys of Macbeth remain, in all their darkness and delicacy. 

Macbeth will be at the Classic Stage Company off-Broadway until December 15, 2019.


Photo Source:

Photo Credits: Joan Marcus