Review: Ralph Fiennes, an older Macbeth, builds sympathy for a killer with soulful weariness


“Macbeth” is littered with casualties — and not only on the fictional battlefield. The tragedy has taken down a battalion of the finest directors and actors, who have fallen victim to the play’s real curse: its deceptive dramatic difficulty.

The problem is counterintuitive. Why does a play as spellbindingly theatrical as “Macbeth” excite an audience’s interest only to exhaust it by the end?

Macbeth’s path as protagonist is a strange one. At the start of the play, he’s a war hero with conspicuous scruples. But after he kills the king to secure the throne for himself, he becomes an unchecked tyrant, devolving into paranoia and butchery.

The theatrical lure of the supernatural dimension is irresistible. As a young reader of Shakespeare, I was enthralled by the soaring language, the diabolical atmosphere and the horrifying situation of a character getting his unconscious desire at the cost of his soul.

I consider “Macbeth” Shakespeare’s most psychological tragedy, but in a way that is completely different from “Hamlet,” which centers on the most introspective character in all of literature. A man of battle, Macbeth isn’t particularly self-searching. His soliloquies come early and they probe his action plans more than they do the root of his feelings.

The psychology in “Macbeth” is externalized. The outer world reflects inner reality. Even the occult in the play is linked to Macbeth’s thoughts. The weird sisters who hail him with prophecies of his future greatness don’t instruct him on what he must do to attain the throne. They stir temptation, but ambition is already festering within him.

The test for the actor playing Macbeth is the handling of those moments in which the audience is granted a fugitive glimpse of the character’s moral and emotional struggles. In the theater, it’s easy to lose sight of Macbeth’s misgivings and regrets amid the thrilling witchery and suspenseful criminality.

“Macbeth” requires agility of focus. One of the reasons the play may have a better success rate on-screen than on the stage is that film has the advantage in being able to move effortlessly between special effects and close-ups.

The latest film version, which stars Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma, combines the best of both worlds. It began as a stage production that was filmed in London and plays in select cinemas on Thursday and Sunday. Fiennes (a distinguished classical stage actor who directed and starred in a film version of Shakespeare’s craggiest tragedy, “Coriolanus”) and Varma (who played Ellaria Sand in HBO’s “Game of Thrones”) are in the last week of their run in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s sold-out American theatrical presentation in Washington, D.C.

Directed by STC Artistic Director Simon Godwin, this modern-dress “Macbeth” relies on an adaptation by Emily Burns that largely sticks to Shakespeare’s text. Having watched the film on my laptop, I can’t say that I had the ideal viewing experience to appreciate the full effect of the staging.

I found the murder scenes more harrowing than the artificial wartime spectacle. The witches in their street attire suggest a troublesome girl gang. The way Godwin employs these women as a chorus, viewing scenes they have no part in, gives their watchful presence more significance than I was able to decode. What’s clear, however, is that the Macbeths are in over their heads in their pact with evil.

Fiennes’ Macbeth is an old warrior, battle-hardened yet weary of spirit. Banquo (Steffan Rhodri), his loyal buddy on the field, seems even older. Caked in gore after a hard-fought victory, they both look ready for retirement, a more temperate spot on the Scottish coast perhaps, preferably not too noisy after all the clamor of their campaigns.

One of the early indications that Macbeth has long been dreaming about being king is his reaction to the witches’ news that he will “be king hereafter.” “Good sir, why do you start and seem to fear / Things that do sound so fair,” Banquo questions him in my edition of the play.

This note in the text is one of those small opportunities that Shakespeare provides to clarify that Macbeth is not merely a puppet of fate. Fiennes doesn’t emphasize the moment, but he does make the most of an early aside in which he is already contemplating removing the king’s eldest son, Malcolm, the heir apparent, from his path to the monarchy.

Lady Macbeth hasn’t yet gotten her talons into her husband. Harold Bloom took delight in the dark irony that the Macbeths have the best marriage in all of Shakespeare. He probably wouldn’t draw that conclusion were he alive to see this production.

Varma’s Lady Macbeth is clearly the dominant force in this household. Her tone is scolding, full of maternal frustration. Her husband’s vacillating nature infuriates her. When Macbeth’s qualms about committing regicide get the better of him, she reprimands him mercifully. “Bring forth men-children only,” he tells her, kneeling before her and placing the side of his head on her womb, almost as if he might wish to return to such motherly safety.

Slow of speech, Fiennes’ Macbeth gives us a clue as to what Hamlet might be like if he had survived and learned to play the deadly game of power politics. Sigmund Freud no doubt would have chalked up Macbeth’s problems here to his unresolved Oedipus complex. Lurking beneath this military machine is a vulnerable boy who doesn’t want to cross his mommy.

Even before Macbeth lays eyes on the ghost of Banquo at the banquet, he adopts a version of Hamlet’s antic disposition, laughing strangely and behaving erratically. Lady Macbeth seems on the verge of slapping him. When the freshly murdered Banquo crashes the party, Macbeth’s crackup goes into overdrive, suggesting a psychotic break more than a bad conscience.

A Hamlet-spin on Macbeth is inherently problematic. While Hamlet is characterized by deliberation and delay, Macbeth moves through the world like an out-of-control freight train. The character takes pride in the way his violent temper outruns his reason. How else could he have become a decorated general?

The truth is that if Macbeth had even a fraction of Hamlet’s philosophical turn of mind he never would have killed the king. But there’s an upside to Fiennes’ approach. My sympathy for the character grew — a rare feat in my experience of productions of this play. Even when Fiennes’ Macbeth orders the death of the Macduffs, as casually as if he were telling the cook what to make for dinner that evening, he reveals a character tragically lost to himself.

Both Lady Macduff (Rebecca Scroggs) and Macduff (Ben Turner) are devastatingly moving in their actor-proof roles. Shakespeare, a canny architect of the audience’s experience, releases a torrent of emotion in their separate scenes.

At the castle, by contrast, such natural feeling is bottled up. When Lady Macbeth sleepwalks into her culpable death, the most moving aspect is the gruff way her husband moves on with his business.

The paths of the Macbeths diverge with ironic antithesis. Lady Macbeth proves herself to be not a fourth witch impervious to guilt but a mortal woman unable to keep her sins buried.

Macbeth, on the other hand, has lost his capacity to feel anything. Fiennes allows us to register the enormousness of this loss. It’s easier in my experience to identify with and excuse the vaulting ambition of a younger Macbeth. But Fiennes and Denzel Washington in Joel Coen’s 2021 film “The Tragedy of Macbeth” paint vivid portraits of childless, death-haunted men with nothing left to live for except the empty pursuit of power.



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