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Simon Godwin's modern-dress 'Macbeth' comes to Washington

Indira Varma and Ralph Fiennes in Macbeth, Shakespeare Theatre Company.
Photo: Marc Brenner

The demand for the Shakespeare Theatre Company's new production of Macbeth has reportedly been off the charts. Simon Godwin, artistic director of STC since 2019, directed this staging in Liverpool, Edinburgh, and London, and it makes its final stop here. In each city, the venue has not been a traditional theater, but a larger building like a warehouse, adapted to the purpose. In Washington, theater-goers must make their way to the former campus of Black Entertainment Television headquarters in the Brentwood neighborhood of Northeast. The cast, starring Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma, has remained the same in each location.

To reach the stage, viewers pass through a room made to look like a modern war zone, with the wreck of a bombed-out car and the glow of fires. Even before the show begins, actos costumed like soldiers patrol the space. The action unfolds not in medieval Scotland, but in a 21st-century location torn apart by warfare. Through the sometimes overwhelming sound system, which surrounds the audience, the sonic boom of jet fighters and explosions punctuates the evening (sound design by Christopher Shutt). Macbeth and the other thanes and soldiers wore military fatigues and tactical vests and helmets while in the field. In the court scenes, they wore elegant gowns, suits, and dress military uniforms with a faintly fascist edge, at times reminiscent of the updated Richard III starring Ian McKellen from over twenty years ago.
The technical bells and whistles are impressive, but other than the battle scenes at the opening and close, the Scottish play is really about private ambitions: it hardly matters where or when the war is happening. The adaptation by Emily Burns streamlines some parts of the play without removing most of the best parts. The three witches (Lucy Mangan, Danielle Fiamanya, and Lola Shalam) appear out of one of several loud explosions, looking like victims of an urban bombing mission who have narrowly escaped death and bear the psychic trauma of it. Bright lights often assist their covert entrances and exits, as Godwin's staging walks a fine line between the witches being supernatural powers or just shell-shocked ghosts.

Photo: Marc Brenner

Ralph Fiennes plays the title role older and a little more seasoned and wise. His Macbeth has been worn down by age, as well as by the demanding nature of his wife, played with vehement force by Indira Varma. Younger than her husband, Lady Macbeth drives him where his ambition might not have taken him. She spurs him beyond the life af a sort of dutiful also-ran in the service of Duncan to grasp at the throne after hearing the strange prophecies of the women harmed by his own military exploits.

If the supernatural business is downplayed a bit (no Hecate appears in the final prophecy scene), the physical elements of violence are amplified: much blood from the murder of Duncan, and even more from the onstage killing of Banquo, among the most graphic stagings in recent memory. Steffan Rhodri's Banquo proved a highlight, an older veteran of many battles by Macbeth's side, with the grim humor to show for it. Ben Turner had the most affecting moments of the evening, drawing out the paternal grief of Macduff as he learned of the murder of his family.

Macbeth runs through May 5. A filmed version will be released in theaters starting on May 2.


Thoughts on Thoughts About Klaus Mäkelä

A Word or Two on the (Negative) Reaction to Klaus Mäkelä’s Appointment in Chicago

The Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä is 28 and has just been named the next Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, starting with the 2027/28 season. When he does, the current MD, Riccardo Muti, will be 86. As classical music knows all too well, there’s nothing wrong with old age per se, but a bit of young blood surely can’t hurt. You would think.

However, there has been considerable opining, grumbling, and bloviating, following this announcement, mostly because Klaus Mäkelä, who is currently the chief conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic and music director of the Orchestre de Paris, will also take on the role of chief conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in 2027. “Too young!” are the cries. “Too hyped!” goes the faux indignation on the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s behalf. “Spread too thin”, weigh in the armchair experts. And, as a most tediously predictable sideshow, every 5th comment on social media will invariably be: “Not a woman! Shame. Shame!” (A different topic for another day.)

The aggregator/master click-baiter Norman Lebrecht goes all insinuation and pessimism in “Chicago Ends up Second City, Maybe Third”, the usual hodge-podge of three snarky, substance-less sentences and four lazy quotes. He refers to the conductor in question as “frequent-flier Klaus Mäkelä”. Newsflash: Every conductor is a frequent flier, these days; the slight comes out only when convenient. Then comes the original content: “Chicago is going to have to get used to waiting in line for its music director. They won’t like that. With Riccardo Muti (pictured), Chicago had bragging rights. Now it has to beg and borrow its shared time, like a telephone user in distant memory.”

Says who? Sharing a conductor with another orchestra isn’t new. Not for any orchestra, and certainly not for the Chicago Symphony. Throughout his time as Chicago’s music director, the orchestra somehow survived George Solti also being music director at Covent Garden, of the Orchestre de Paris, and principal conductor of the London Philharmonic. Daniel Barenboim was the head of the Berlin State Opera (a more labor-intensive task than being the music director of a philharmonic orchestra) for all but the first year of his Chicago tenure. Double tenures are not unusual, they are the norm and have been, for well over half a century. Mariss Jansons was never head of the Concertgebouw (RCO) without also being the music director of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Haitink was head of the LPO for twelve years, allawhile running...


Critic’s Notebook: An Odd Liederabend from Goerne and Kissin

Also reviewed for Die Presse: Ein Liederabend, bei dem vieles auf der Strecke blieb

available at Amazon
R. Schumann,
Dichterliebe, Liederkreis
M.Goerne, V.Ashkenazy
Harmonia Mundi

available at Amazon
J. Brahms,
4 Serious Songs, 4 Songs op.32
M.Goerne, C.Eschenbach
Harmonia Mundi

A Walrus in Love

The trick to turn a Liederabend from a connoisseur’s event into a big-ticket item, appears to be the addition of a pianist superstar to the singer in question. At the Musikverein’s Golden Hall, on March 13th, the magic ingredient to bolster Matthias Goerne’s already considerable draw was Evgeny Kissin. It makes sense, too, because in theory it’s much more interesting to hear, what two veritable artists come up with, as part of their collaboration, rather than simply having a singer be followed by an accompanist. I mean, no one goes to a concert to hear Helmut Deutsch – and few singers form as organic a duo with their ivory-partner, as do/does GerhaherHuber (one word)™.

In practice, that didn’t quite work out on this occasion. For starters, the Golden Hall was decidedly not built for Lieder-recitals. When Lieder-singers hit the big-time, they almost invariably become the victim of their own success, location-wise. And yes, there were smile-inducing moments from Kissin, such as his brawny-pawed opening of Robert Schumann’s “Am Strand”. But for the most part, there seemed little input from him… or if there was, it didn’t appear to be picked up on by Goerne. (Certainly his understanding with Christoph Eschenbach as his pianist, for example, suggested more of a give and take, both, on record and live.)

Also: The whole evening was full of mannerisms galore. Goerne can barrel through a song and braw like a donkey. And a lot of fun it sometimes is. On this occasion, a red-faced Goerne danced as if on tippy-toes, contorting himself, and reminded vaguely of a lovelorn walrus. Much of Dichterliebe, for example, was purred in honeyed tones but mumbled in such nasal tones, that it had to be an interpretative choice. Albeit one I did not comprehend. Half the text was impossible to understand and sounded more French than German. This approach was interrupted occasionally, such as for the blistering “Die Rose, die Lilie”, or in stentorian turns for the last of the nine Brahms op.32 songs, “Wie bist du, meine Königin”. Here, Kissin, hunched over the keyboard as though he had forgotten his reading glasses at home, provided for tantalizing contrast with his tone, ringing out clear as a bell, and his lullaby-esque take on it.

But that was too little, too late. Too much text fell by the wayside. Whatever was left had a strangely impersonal quality about it and was – and this can’t just be blamed on Brahms – somewhat brittle and wearisome.