"Macbeth 1969" at Long Wharf Theatre

--Irene Backalenick

When you fail, you fail big. That can happen when you tackle noble causes by way of far-out experimentation. So it is with Eric Ting (Long Wharf’s Associate Artistic Director) and his current production. Ting offers up his own spin on “Macbeth”--a modern-day version of Shakespeare’s classic. But this “Macbeth” has wandered far afield from its earlier model. Though much of the brilliant poetry remains intact, many passages have been cut, reshaped, enhanced. (How appropriate that Ting has renamed the piece “Macbeth 1969!)

 

Ting’s point is that war has been with us from time immemorial, an inherent part of man’s history. Thus, twentieth century fighting men bear strong resemblances to a Macbeth created in 1606. And this modern Macbeth, like many soldiers, returns from the wars a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD -- a condition which has born numerous other names in our times).

 

Ting, who directs and conceived the piece, must be praised for bringing this critical issue to the stage. But its connection to Macbeth (Shakespeare’s Macbeth, that is) is far-fetched. The Macbeth we’ve always known falls apart, not from the rigors and horrors of war, but from his own guilt--his murders of King Duncan and army buddy Banquo. He is torn by remorse and paranoia, not the stresses of war, and it is a stretch to see him as a victim of PTSD. What is at issue with Macbeth is his towering ambition and its subsequent results. As he murders for power, each murder becomes both easier and more necessary. “Blood will have blood,” he declares at one point.

 

But “Macbeth 1969” has other problems. If the viewer has not read the program notes prior to curtain time, he is indeed lost. Why are we at a hospital nurse’s station? Who are these people? Which character represents whom? Do characters change personae from time to time? At some moments, we are deeply into Shakespeare, but at other times confusion reigns. In fact, watching the hurly-burly on stage, we search, often vainly, for familiar territory. This is not good. The play should be able to stand on its own feet, without accompanying explanatory notes.

 

Yet Ting is, as his past record has shown, a brilliant, imaginative director. There are striking moments of lust, horror, violence, as played out across the stage. Ting has put to good use Mimi Lien’s dramatic stage set, Tyler Micoleau’s harsh lighting, and, particularly, Ryan Rumery’s unnerving sound-and-music background. And he gets strong performances from McKinley Belcher III and Shirine Babb in the leads.

 

Yet, the end result must be seen as a magnificent failure. Perhaps Ting -- or some one --could write a different, affecting drama about returning veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. And let Macbeth, true to his legacy, continue to play the traditional “Macbeth.”


This review also appears on nytheaterscene.com

 

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