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Starry new productions show “Macbeth” is the tragedy for our times

THERE IS A tide in the affairs of men, and in performances of Shakespeare’s plays. The pageant of demagoguery in “Julius Caesar” seemed urgent during the ascent of Donald Trump. The dilemma in “Hamlet” over how to act in a rotten state made it popular in eastern Europe at the fag-end of communism. And now, it seems, chance has crowned “Macbeth” king of the stage.

Having dipped his toe in blood as James Bond, Daniel Craig will wade into Macbeth’s river of it on Broadway next March, alongside Ruth Negga. Even more than most of Shakespeare’s work, “Macbeth” overflows with familiar turns of phrase, from his “poisoned chalice” to “the be-all and the end-all” or that “one fell swoop”—and at the moment it is likewise full of faces from the telly. Another glitzy production, currently showing at the Almeida Theatre in London, features Saoirse Ronan and James McArdle (recently of “Mare of Easttown”). “The Tragedy of Macbeth” (pictured), an uncanny black-and-white film adaptation by Joel Coen, stars Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand; it was screened at the London Film Festival in October and will open in cinemas next month.

Public and private themes conspire to make “Macbeth” the tragedy for these times. Most glaringly, it is a story about what happens when people with elbows (or swords) sharp enough to grab power find they are ill-equipped to wield it. Macbeth, like some modern politicians, can only govern in campaign mode, which in his case means surprising castles and assassinating rivals. Each depredation calls forth the next, according to the inexorable, self-justifying logic of crime and cover-up, all of them paid for in the suffering of others.

The “sighs and groans and shrieks” in Shakespeare’s Scotland are not caused by a respiratory virus, but the pestilential mood will touch a nerve with audiences. After seizing the throne, Macbeth’s overwhelming concern is for his own political security; like some other self-serving leaders, calibrating lockdowns and social-distancing measures would not have been his thing. Though they differ widely—sex is the engine of ambition for the young Macbeths on stage, whereas, for Mr Washington’s grey-bearded thane, all this is a last throw of the dice—both Mr Coen’s film and the Almeida production are tellingly unforgiving. In the film, the supernatural elements become dreams and hallucinations, and the dagger Macbeth sees before him is a shiny door knob. In the theatre, the witches are dressed as sombre magistrates. There is little magic here, and there are no excuses.

And toxic masculinity abounds. No urging to “man up” was ever so cutting as Macbeth’s taunt of the murderers he sets on Banquo: “in the catalogue ye go for men”. “Macbeth” asks how a man should grieve, seek redress, feel, live and dare—and how he is supposed to die. The answers are a how-not-to guide for the ages, a manual never more salutary than now. Male viewers of these productions should know what to do, and what not to, if anyone ever tells them to be a man, or doubts that they are one.

But the drama’s deepest resonance is more intimate than these riffs on power and manliness gone awry. “Macbeth” is the great bait-and-switch of Shakespeare’s tragedies. It advertises itself as a tale of sorcery and revolt, but at its heart is a different sort of confrontation—between a man and his wife, and between both and their consciences. Its key setting is not the battlefield but the bedroom, where the main action does not involve Macbeth’s blade and Duncan’s throat, nor the kinetic charge of connubial lust, but the soul-destroying struggle to go to sleep. Insomnia is a 21st-century plague, and, after more than 400 years, “Macbeth” is still its supreme threnody.

Few people these days go in for regicide, infanticide and hand-to-hand combat. But who, in an era of financial turmoil, political crisis and pandemic, has not shared the “restless ecstasy” of Macbeth’s woozy nights, panicking in the small hours that they might “sleep no more”? At the Almeida, Mr McArdle’s exhausted king watches Ms Ronan tossing on the royal bed as the dawn light creeps in. The tableau beautifully captures an experience common to insomniacs through the centuries: dreading the morning, impotently sensing that your mind is crumbling and watching a happier partner doze—blessing yet envying their sleep, together but alone.


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