'Lear' and 'Macbeth': Maybe these men need a rest

Kenneth Branagh in Shakespeare's "Macbeth" at the Park Kenneth Branagh in Shakespeare's "Macbeth" at the Park Avenue Armory, directed by Rob Ashford & Kenneth Branagh, during a dress rehearsal on May 30, 2014. Photo Credit: Stephanie Berger

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Linda Winer Newsday theater critic and arts columnist Linda Winer.

Winer is chief theater critic and arts columnist for Newsday, which she joined in 1987.

Another opening, another show. Another "Macbeth," another "King Lear." Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow ...

Forgive what might be seen as a bad attitude. Too much Macbeth and too many Lears? Surely, only an ingrate would point out that Shakespeare wrote other masterworks.

But when John Lithgow officially opens Tuesday in "King Lear" as part of the Public Theater's free Shakespeare in Central Park, this will be our sixth since Christopher Plummer scaled the daunting mountain of mature tragedy at Lincoln Center a decade ago. In fact, it has been just six months since Frank Langella did his gutsy Lear at BAM and less than three years since Sam Waterston did his small-scaled one at the Public's downtown theater. (The other two were Derek Jacobi in 2011 and a too-young but poignant Kevin Kline in 2007.)

Now let's talk about "Macbeth," a play so familiar these days that even an interactive Macbeth-inspired romp, "Sleep No More," has been running in Chelsea since 2011.

When Kenneth Branagh brought his bloody, viscerally powerful production to the Park Avenue Armory in June, it was our fifth since 2000 and scarcely more than six months since Ethan Hawke was an oddly stark and dull Macbeth at Lincoln Center. And that was just four months after Alan Cumming closed his audacious one-man "Macbeth" on Broadway after an earlier run at the Lincoln Center Festival. (The other two were Patrick Stewart, 2008, about which more later, and Kelsey Grammer, 2000, about which the less said the better.)

Why these two tragedies? Why now? The cheap pop psychologist in me says we are getting "Lear," about an aged king's descent into madness, because boomers are getting older and dementia is not someone else's problem anymore. As for "Macbeth," this is the closest Shakespeare gets to a short-attention action/horror movie, with a greatest-hits anthology of dazzling speeches, and enough fast-moving murderous ambition to compensate for the fact that so little else happens in character development and nuance.

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Obviously, the timely lure of these two brand-name classics must have more interesting explanations.

Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public and Shakespeare in the Park, has been thinking about this, too. "When I was a young man in the early '70s, I was surrounded by Hamlets," he told me in a recent phone interview. "His utter sense of alienation, his conviction that the government and his parents were corrupt. But he had no idea what to do about it."

Eustis looks far beyond my simple speculations for the modern grip of "Lear." "You have a society seemingly secure, but that's actually incredibly fragile," he continues. "And some foolish decision by a powerful old man can unleash barbarism. There's this unconscious fear that we are being held together by bonds much more fragile than we realize . . . and it's a tragedy."

Specifically, Lear, the father, "decides to give out his favors based on how much his daughters kiss his ass," Eustis says. "He thinks you can measure love by quantities. And we live in a society that puts a dollar value on everything, replacing human bonds with the idea that you can count it, measure it and compete with it."

Then, too, America has a generation now aging into the role most desired by major actors of a certain age. Years ago, in separate interviews with Jason Robards and Peter O'Toole, I was struck how each expressed a deep yearning to play Lear. Neither managed. Once again, it seems that timing is everything. Christopher Plummer played a Lear already enfeebled at his entrance. By the time he got to the climactic scene where a chastened Lear carries the corpse of his beloved daughter Cordelia, Plummer had to lug the body in a tarp while someone pushed from behind.

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Lithgow, in a written statement, said, "For my money, 'King Lear' is the most sublime mixture of poetry and emotion in a piece of theater. I've always wanted to speak those beautiful words and to stir all that emotion in an audience. It was just a matter of being old enough."

For years, or at least after seeing Alec Baldwin's stolid "Macbeth" at the Public in 1998 and Grammer's one-note one on Broadway in 2000, I was reluctantly starting to think that Shakespeare's regal slaughterhouse tragedy read better than it played. Everyone who got through high school knows this is a great bloody read, but on stage the weird-sister witches were never weird enough and their prophecies just seemed silly.

It wasn't until director Rupert Goold's dazzling and daring 2008 update, starring Patrick Stewart, that I stopped thinking "Macbeth" might work best as an animated feature. Heresy, I know. But here was Shakespeare's bulldozer of a power play as blood relative of "Night of the Living Dead" against a multimedia backdrop of Stalin's Russia. The weird sisters first haunted the triage military hospital as nurses, then as castle cooks, then as morgue workers. Stewart was riveting as he evolved from a bemused soldier in a brush mustache to a sadist who commissions Banquo's murder while making himself a sandwich.

In contrast, Ethan Hawke's Macbeth was a snooze, but director Jack O'Brien made the most out of the magic with scary supernatural creatures that didn't just squat around a cauldron and poof away. Andre Bishop, artistic director of the Lincoln Center Theater, told me that the theater decided to do yet another "Macbeth" because O'Brien, "with whom LCT has had such a long and happy relationship, wanted to do the kind of production of the play that is rarely done today. . . . He wanted to focus on the occult and mysterious and black magic-y side of the play," rather than doing an "action play filled with lovely poetry. . . . So the short answer is that I wanted to give a brilliant director a chance to do a play that he really wanted to do."

The disappointment was Hawke, such an impressive and self-challenging stage actor. When he was narrator of a segment of the PBS series "Shakespeare Uncovered," he spoke passionately about the play. He called it the "darkest and strangest of all Shakespeare's plays," emphasizing its modern relevance. "It may be 400 years old, but anybody who pays attention can recognize everybody in it . . . recognize the evil in the heart of man."

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Eustis also says, "'Macbeth' feels incredibly contemporary. I wish this were not a relevant story, but it is. In pursuit of his own ambition, here's a guy willing to sacrifice every other value." Then again, he continues, "Shakespeare's great achievement is to create a character who pursues the worst things imaginable but is consciously torturing himself. We watch him get eaten alive from the inside."

As Ian McKellen once famously coached Patrick Stewart, the emphasis in the "tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" speech is on the "and." That also works with another "Macbeth" and another "King Lear." And another opening, another show.

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