Macbeth review – Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga soar but there’s magic missing

For tragedy to really tear your heart out, it has to feel preventable. What if Juliet’s messenger had arrived on time? What if Othello had trusted his wife? What if Caesar had just stayed home that day and caught up on the latest papyrus? Watching the brisk, mordant Broadway revival of Macbeth, which stars a muscled, de-Bonded Daniel Craig, you might entertain another what-if: what if medieval Scotland had maximally effective therapy?

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Sam Gold’s production performed on a seemingly bare stage, designed by Christine Jones and lit, thrillingly – in shocking blues, reds and greens – by Jane Cox. It begins with a precis of attitudes toward early modern witchcraft, delivered, drolly, by Michael Patrick Thornton. An incantation follows. A cast member (Danny Wolohan, later to endure worse) is hung upside down in an inverted cross while other members stir a bubbling pot with suspiciously red contents. Is that smell garlic? Or something more sinister? Still, this swift, savvy Macbeth never winds its charm too tightly; only rarely does it feel unearthly.

Instead, Craig’s burly Macbeth, clad handsomely in Suttirat Larlab’s modern dress costumes, is every inch a man of action and a soldier, even in a silky bathrobe, entirely convincing in motion, less persuasive when zipping through Macbeth’s equivocations. If he is in blood stepped in so far, it doesn’t seem to bother him. Any decent castle has maid service. Instead, this Macbeth inhabits a one-man culture of toxic masculinity, prisoner to his vaulting ambition, unable to accept any personal weakness or to enjoy his golden opinions when there is more still to achieve. Infirm of purpose? Please.

If this Macbeth could use some time supine on an analyst’s couch, he and Lady Macbeth (a dynamic Ruth Negga) could also use some couples counseling. Negga’s Lady Macbeth is an enabler and an abettor (codependent much?), asking to be unsexed so that she can achieve the masculine ruthlessness that her husband so clearly values. The characters who display more sympathy and fellow feeling – Paul Lazar’s bluff Duncan, Amber Gray’s crystalline Banquo – don’t tend to last long here. The one exception is Grantham Coleman’s upstanding Macduff, who resists the urging of Malcom (Asia Kate Dillon) to man up.

“Dispute it like a man,” Malcolm insists.

Instead, Macduff insists on making space for his grief and his weakness. “I shall do so,” he says. “But I must also feel it as a man. I cannot but remember such things were, that were most precious to me.” But in contrast to most productions, Macduff’s victory feels less than assured.

There’s pleasure to be found here and a dark, macabre wit. The potion that begins the second half has some ghastly ingredients. Poor Wolohan. Gold’s direction is focused and specific, in contrast to his labored King Lear. But there’s something unexamined and underscrutinized in this version. This Macbeth, a man of action, doesn’t change much from the first scene to the last. (His Iago, in Gold’s Othello, had more depth and variety.) Negga’s Lady M transforms, though this happens almost as soon as we meet her. And after the first half, the play mostly shunts her offstage. (Well, to the back of the stage, characters here rarely disappear. Especially dead ones.)

There is shock – short, sharp – and surprises and some playful, inventive staging, but little that feels truly risky or dangerous. The conflicts are external, not internal. “It feels good,” Thornton teases in that opening speech, “to cast a little spell”. Yet, despite the charms and potions, there’s not so much magic here.