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Toil and trouble, and missed connections, in 'Macbeth' at Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Toil and trouble, and missed connections, in 'Macbeth' at Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Conleth Hill and Frances McDormand star in Shakespeare’s cursed classic. (Kevin Berne)

Lady Macbeth is such a larger-than-life theatrical figure that it's only natural that audiences would like more information about her than Shakespeare is willing to provide.

His method, still unmatched, is suggestive, elliptical and completely comfortable with contradiction. Personality in his hands is a wilderness with multiple trails rather than a fixed path.

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Lady Macbeth says she has nursed a child but is plainly childless. She has the heart of a cold-blooded murderer yet confesses she was unable to kill the king herself because he resembled her father. She scorns her husband's fretful conscience, yet she's the one who ultimately falls victim to remorse.

Frances McDormand, starring opposite Conleth Hill in Daniel Sullivan's Berkeley Repertory Theatre production of Shakespeare's cursed classic, uses these clues into the character to fashion a more recognizable Lady Macbeth. Somewhat depressive yet fiercely determined, she's not ordinary by any stretch, but she's unquestionably flesh and blood rather than phantasmagorial.

Frances McDormand and Conleth Hill in "Macbeth."
Frances McDormand and Conleth Hill in "Macbeth." (Kevin Berne)

Lady Macbeth's lust for power is at once monstrous and familiar. Her ferocious facade can't conceal her vulnerability as a wife. At one point, it seems as if she's about to give way to grief over a lost baby, but she fends off the old feeling, knowing nothing good will come from a womanly display of sorrow.

In a bold casting move, Sullivan assigns McDormand an additional role. Before entering as Macbeth's "dearest partner of greatness," she has already captured our attention as one of the three weird sisters tempting the Scottish general with regal prophecies. (Rami Margron and Mia Tagano complete McDormand's coven.)

Alexander V. Nichols' video projections of night sky, fog and woods haunt Douglas W. Schmidt's crepuscular scenic design. Carnage has streaked wintry nature red. Here is where Macbeth comes upon the witches, who greet him with titles that make his imagination go into overdrive.

Banquo (Christopher Innvar), Macbeth's battlefield ally, notices how this news has transfixed his friend. But so too does Lady Macbeth back in Inverness when she receives her husband's report of the witches' predictions. She reads between the lines of his letter to see into his covetous heart but fears that without her push he will let the matter remain hypothetical.

In moving from the heath to the hearth with a simple change in costume, McDormand makes visible this invisible link between the witches and Macbeth's better (worse?) half. The late Shakespeare scholar Janet Adelman, who wrote most illuminatingly on this subject, memorably summed up the matter in her book "Suffocating Mothers": "Lady Macbeth brings the witches' power home: they get the cosmic apparatus, she gets the psychic force."

Sullivan provocatively draws out this subtextual association, but his production would be stronger — and a good deal more frightening — if there were more natural chemistry between McDormand and Hill. The irony of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth's intense intimacy hasn't been lost on scholars — Harold Bloom mischievously contends that they are "the happiest married couple in all his work."

Hill, the Northern Irish stage and screen actor best known perhaps for his role as Varys on HBO's "Game of Thrones," lacks Macbeth's military glamour. The erotic dimension of the character's martial prowess, exploited to chilling effect in Roman Polanski's disturbingly sensual 1971 screen version, is largely absent here. (Meg Neville's bulky costumes don't help matters.) The bigger issue, however, is the discrepancy in acting styles between the leads.

Not content to rest on her film laurels, McDormand, an Oscar winner for "Fargo," has long been testing her theatrical range through avant-garde adventures with the Wooster Group and intrepid off-Broadway forays. But contemporary realism is still her default. She finds Lady Macbeth's character through adjustments in her affect, visibly arranging her attitude before uttering a word. Hill, by contrast, approaches his role more rhetorically. His crisply articulated traditionalism stands in contrast to McDormand's quieter style.

Her hold on Lady Macbeth's lines is shaky in places, but the figure she cuts is distinctive, especially in the character's silences. McDormand pads around with the confident stealth of a scheming housewife who has hidden strychnine in the pantry in case her plans go awry. Hill shines intelligent light on Macbeth's interior journey from hero to butcher, illuminating motivation by respecting the poetry, but his stage presence is less potent.

This gulf isn't unique to the leads. Rarely do the performers connect with one another. Dialogue is swatted back and forth, but the impression is of vacuum-sealed monologues. Characters don't readily disclose their deepest secrets in "Macbeth" — they are strangers to themselves — but the problem is that the language doesn't seem natural in the actors' mouths.

Great Shakespearean acting requires a perfect synchronicity of speech and psychology. Sullivan, one of the most experienced Shakespearean directors working in America today, isn't able to pull off a miracle with cast members of such varying degrees of experience. But he brings his most adroit players forward and keeps the pace brisk and the storytelling lucid. His signature is not to obstruct Shakespeare, and the play flows even when the production cools.

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James Carpenter uniquely individualizes three secondary roles — the clueless Duncan, the drunken Porter and Lady Macbeth's doctor. As Banquo, Innvar so plausibly holds the stage as Macbeth's equal that I'd like to see his portrayal of the Scottish tyrant one day. Korey Jackson infuses Macduff with a moral glow that galvanizes our rooting interest after Lady Macduff (Tagano) and their son (Leon Jones) are brutally slaughtered.

McDormand is compelling in the sleepwalking scene, when Lady Macbeth mumbles her guilt to herself and ritualistically wipes her stained hands. Hill humanizes Macbeth's final act depravity, showing us a man exhausted by his own evil but left with no other choice than to go out fighting.

After the regicide, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth grow further apart until not even word of her death can move him. But for the tragedy to reach maximum strength, their bond must be more evident early on. Lady Macbeth can practically read his thoughts, but McDormand and Hill don't appear to have much of an intuitive connection.

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