Long Wharf's MACBETH 1969 is Much Toil and Trouble
Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy goes under the knife in Long Wharf’s premiere production of Macbeth 1969. Reset from Scotland to a Vietnam veteran’s hospital in Middle America, what emerges is an hour-and-50 minute revision that surgically excises the dark heart of the play. In his effort to diagnose the infamous characters with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, director/adapter Eric Ting has removed a quantity of the play’s vital organs and shuffled other of the body parts. What results is not exactly Frankenstein’s monster, but it is not exactly Macbeth either.
Sleep No More, the smash hit adaptation of Macbeth currently selling out in New York City, has managed to disembowel and stretch the story in a compelling, almost unrecognizable way. By all accounts an extremely talented director, Ting is less than successful in his efforts to transplant the Scottish tale to an American VA hospital in the year 1969. Aside from moving the play to a PTSD ward and jumping the action about a millennia (the real Macbeth died in 1057, resuscitated by Shakespeare in the early 1600s), the adaptation jettisons over a half-dozen characters. Exit Malcolm and Donalbain, enter Nurse Ratched.
The action begins with Macbeth returning from Vietnam to find a near-mummified, wheelchair-bound Banquo in a hospital ward under the care of three nurses. The famous opening scene of the witches on the heath is replaced with the hospital staff prattling off the prophecy that Macbeth is now Thane of Cawdor and Thane of Glamis. Faster than you can say, “time for your sponge bath,” Macbeth is well on his way to becoming king. From here the problems with the adaptation mount. In the original, Banquo and Macbeth have returned from war in triumph. That was not the case with Vietnam. The play hangs on the conflict between Macbeth’s ambition and his guilty subconscious. He is not a victim of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; he is a victim of Post Success Disorder. He is not haunted by the horrors of war; he is tormented because he is paranoid ruler that knows he cannot hold onto his crown.
What ensues over the remainder of the play is an ill-fitting soldier/nurse uniform. Is Macbeth vying to be the king of a hospital ward? Why does Duncan, the King portrayed as a grinning politician, overnight in the PTSD ward? Why is Lady Macbeth both wife and floor nurse and why is she having sex with her patients before encouraging them to kill local politicians? Banquo’s brutal murder is replaced with a coincidental death-by-blood coughing, thereby removing a true sign that Macbeth has turned a corner by ordering the death of his comrade. Since little of this is presented in a surreal fashion, one has to take the plot machinations at face value.
The performances are problematic to an extent. McKinley Belcher III’s Macbeth seems undisturbed by his experiences in Vietnam when he first arrives at the hospital, prompting the question, “Why is he here in the first place?” Belcher does summon some effective scenes, but does not possess the feel of a king or a bloodied warrior. Similarly, Shirine Babb as Lady Macbeth/Nurse 2 fails to dig deep for the malevolent ambition that will thrust her husband into the throne (or a bed pan).
Barret O’Brien, playing the dual roles of Banquo and MacDuff, is not particularly memorable in either performance. Jackie Chung as Nurse 2 is effective in her one chilling scene as Lady Macduff and is inappropriately shrill and comic in her turn as the Porter after Duncan’s murder. Socorro Santiago, saddled with a silly wig as Nurse 1, delivers a fine performance, as does George Kulp as Duncan. No one offers a truly terrible performance, but the production does not allow anyone to truly shine.
There are some gripping scenes, particularly the moment where Macbeth undergoes shock therapy and the final moments where the now-king is haunted by the ghosts of everyone he has murdered (or watched cough up blood). At these moments, the acting and the whiz-bang design all work in service of the story, rather than against it.
One cannot fault Ting’s good intentions (the playbill comes equipped with nearly two dozen phone numbers for PTSD and veteran service hotlines), but clearly the failings of the production lie with the conceits of the adaptation. Like the titular character, there is no shortage of ambition onstage. Although he may not come back from this battle the victor, Ting shows enough Macbeth-like drive to prove that he went down fighting.