Lizard’s Leg and Owlet’s Wing, Which Macbeth Will Be King?

One Macbeth in a week is reasonable; two looks like conscientiousness. But I’m afraid we must blame the unfortunate Kelsey Grammer, whose brief appearance as Macbeth on Broadway had me speeding up Interstate 95 to catch Anthony Sher’s lauded Macbeth at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven. Mr. Sher is a true Shakespearean and possibly a great one. Mr. Grammer is an accomplished light comedian and TV star who dreamed of strutting and fretting his two hours upon the stage with the best of them, and his nightmare came true.

It will be little consolation when I say with absolute certainty that Mr. Sher could scarcely begin to play Frasier. His urgent, electric talent is for the psychotic killer rather than the lovable shrink. The Grammer Macbeth closed after only 13 regular performances, and the number 13-let alone the legend of bad luck associated with the play-can’t be entirely to blame. The worst that has happened to Mr. Sher-all fingers crossed-is that he lost his voice and had to miss a couple of performances.

Double, double toil and trouble;

Broadway bursts Kelsey’s bubble.

You can do many things with Macbeth -there is even a renowned Zulu Macbeth -but it is almost impossible to make it dull. At roughly two hours in length, the dark, murderous play goes at a clip (except for the invariably wearisome Malcolm-and-Macduff discussion on kingship), and it’s the shortest tragedy in the Shakespeare canon. Look at the potent brew the Bard has cooked up for us: witches and ghosts, sex and ambition, murder and mayhem, evil unto evil, all the things we really enjoy. Yet the cut-price, underpopulated Broadway production directed by Terry Hands, of all distinguished people-Mr. Hands ran the Royal Shakespeare Company for many years-never moves or inspires us in its flat, encircling Stygian gloom. If we are not horrified by Macbeth , it is no Macbeth .

Mr. Grammer is an ungainly stage presence, with his feet splayed at 10 minutes to two in his big, spongy moon boots. His black Gap T-shirt, hinting at gangster swank, was unbecoming. His monotonous baritone delivery is confident but starved of poetry. With all his soliloquies-except for the dignified resignation of “Tomorrow, and tomorrow”-it was a race to the finish, as if merely to get through, to have a bash, is good enough. As Macbeth himself says of his own kingly power: “To be thus is nothing; / But to be safely thus.… ” Mr. Sher, incidentally, memorably spits out the word “nothing.” All power is for nought unless secure, and all murderously acquired power like Macbeth’s will in turn kill its possessor.

“He can become a king, so he must become a king,” wrote Jan Kott, most perceptive of all drama critics and Shakespeare scholars. “He kills the rightful sovereign. He then must kill the witnesses of the crime, and those who suspect it. He must kill the sons and friends of those he has killed. Later he must kill everybody, for everybody is against him.” Macbeth will hang those who even talk of fear. “In the end, he will be killed himself. He has trod the whole way up and down the grand staircase of history.”

Alas, Mr. Grammer does not suggest terror, but weakness and confusion; his Macbeth is less haunted to the marrow of his bones, more hysterical. His conscience won’t kill this king. When Mr. Grammer emerges with bloody knives from Duncan’s bedroom, he intones “I have done the deed” with all the tortured, murderous conviction of “I’ve put the cat out.” There’s no terrifying chemistry between this sleepwalking Macbeth and the Missus. But then, Diane Venora’s nondescript Lady M. doesn’t begin to connect to the part’s ecstasy of evil. Her mad scene is the first I’ve witnessed in which Lady Macbeth compulsively washes one hand because her other hand is holding a candle.

Let it all pass. (It has.) The Kelsey Grammer Macbeth was no worse in its vain way than the Alec Baldwin Macbeth of two or three seasons ago. Mr. Baldwin’s was hairier. We tire of movie and TV stars who, without much training or commitment, play Shakespeare’s tragic heroes from time to time as if “all is but toys.” And to that I cry: To New Haven!

The achievement of Gregory Doran’s Royal Shakespeare Company production with Anthony Sher is to get the murderous center of the play right. In one of their rivetingly fresh scenes together, Mr. Sher and Harriet Walter, his stunning Lady Macbeth, literally dissolve into uncontrollable laughter at the mention of the word “sleep.” Sleep is impossible for these two butchers. Sleep no longer exists. Their world is nightmare.

Is Macbeth , I wonder, solely a tragedy of ambition? Ambition and terror make the murderous nightmare possible. But the entire action from start to finish lives and drowns in blood, and blood is on the hands of the innocent as well as the guilty. ” Macbeth has been called a tragedy of ambition, and a tragedy of terror. This is not true,” wrote Jan Kott. “There is only one theme in Macbeth : murder. History has been reduced to its simplest form, to one image and one division: those who kill and those who are killed.”

Mr. Sher and Ms. Walter play elemental forces of evil, and their Macbeths are true partners in crime whose “toys” are a kingdom gone insane, an unreal plaything, without conscience or remorse. The two stars perform brilliantly together-reminding us there are two great roles in Macbeth (and then there’s the rest). The sexual infatuation between the happy couple is usually overstated-power as aphrodisiac-yet Lady M. could be sexless. Ms. Walter’s uncompromised coldness is unearthly enough for swooning triumphs, her wonderfully focused mad scene a pinnacle of unhinged ambition. Why doesn’t Lady Macbeth ever ask her compliant husband what the witches are like? Because she is a witch! In her demonic weird spirit, she’s both of the bloody earth and poisoned air.

Does Mr. Sher move a shade too soon into Macbeth’s possessed, vaulting ambition? It’s debatable. He enters the action like a heroic journeyman soldier held aloft in triumph by his army buddies. And at the witch’s prophecy (or warning)- “All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter!”-Mr. Sher’s eyes are transfixed by the glittering prize of the crown. He’s the psychopath whose flame of ambition has only to be ignited, rather than the good soldier who’s willed to murderous ambition solely by his bossy wife. They’re like hypnotic whispering co-conspirators, high and giddy with terror. His squat, sardonic thuggishness actually suggests the seductive hold over Macbeth, not of ambition, but of murder for its own sake. “I am in blood / Stepp’d in so far,” says Macbeth, “that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er. ” The die is cast-why trouble to turn back?

Mr. Sher’s Macbeth is rarely introspective-he’sa rarely introspective actor-but his relish for the poetry is a pleasure. There’s an uncharacteristic lapse with his ultimate “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/ That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more. ” Mr. Sher-already seen in shadow, lest we miss the message-abandons the stage to point at its emptiness from the audience. But the “nothing” that’s signified in this “tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury” surely isn’t the stage, but the futility of Macbeth’s life, and perhaps our own, on the way to “dusty death.”

It’s a director’s lapse, and part of the blatancy that has spoiled touring R.S.C. productions of late. I’m thinking of their recent disco-erotic A Midsummer Night’s Dream , in which the actors fought for laughs like desperate comedians on a Saturday night at the Comedy Store. So this otherwise compelling Macbeth has a Porter who for some ingratiating purpose performs a so-so impersonation of President Clinton; or the symphony of drums to announce the knocking at the gates; the screaming bag-lady witches; the pacifier that Macduff finds in his pocket, the better to milk the memory of his slaughtered children; or the catch-all costumes through the ages, from school-play papal to Bosnian chic to a Macbeth in black tie and suspenders. As is customary by now, the production also takes place in minimalist semi-darkness. How good and refreshing it would be to see a new Macbeth performed in brightest, shining light. But if I may, let it be not yet.