Christmas, we know, comes once a year. But "Macbeth" comes to town so seldom we are likely to greet each appearance with unreasonably high expectations.
Shakespeare's tragedy about unrestrained ambition is a play in which the only fertile thing is blood, which begets more blood uncontrollably. Every other image is of Nature ravaged. Even trees, symbols of fertility, become devices of war. One woman sees her child murdered, another talks remorselessly of murdering a child. This is clearly a vision of Hell.
The current production occasionally gives us a vision of the world turned Inferno. More often than not, however, it's no more wrenching than Limbo.
Christopher Plummer and Glenda Jackson give performances full of ideas and strength. Some of the others are also strong, but there is no stylistic consistency. Perhaps in an effort to avoid the overblown style of which Shakespearean actors are often guilty, the general tone is understated. As if in a play in which body piled upon body must be done with an eye to decorum and good taste.
The closest the production comes to the wildness of Shakespeare's vision is the performance of Glenda Jackson, whose first entrance is not that of a stately matron or even a potential villain, but that of a young woman full of almost girlish enthusiasm.
Once she has resolved to spur her husband's ambition, she moves with a catlike decisiveness and the sinuous grace of some ancient priestess - a high-class sister to the crones who also further Macbeth's "career."
Only in the sleepwalking scene does her lean body suddenly seem limp and broken. Jackson brings great power to the scene by crouching, plaintively comforting her imaginary, equally broken husband.
Plummer's Macbeth is a gruff, honest-spoken man, clearly decent and thus clearly anguished at what he does. Until the very end, when even the news of his wife's death cannot bring out any emotion.
Jackson's steely voice is a perfect instrument to portray a grasping, ruthless woman. It's like a shot of gin compared to the brandy of Plummer's mellow, grave intoning.
He has passed the point where anything can rouse him. There is no anger, no sorrow in his calling life "a tale told by an idiot." It is not a cry of outrage, but a statement of fact made so soberly, so coldly it seems to come from some other planet, one as bleak and forlorn as Macbeth has made Scotland.
There is solid work by Paul Shenar as Banquo, Jack Gwillim as Duncan, Randle Mell as Malcolm and Alan Scarfe as Macduff, though Scarfe is the only actor whose style is distinctly English. Cherry Jones is moving as the hapless Lady Macduff. Jeff Weiss is funny as the Porter, though his is the humor of a genial barkeep, not of the sardonic gatekeeper of Hell.
I have seen this star-crossed production in earlier incarnations, a useful education for a critic. The progress it has made since Pittsburgh is astonishing. But though it has more humor and sharpness, it lacks the drive it had in Toronto, particularly in the final scenes, where what should seem a juggernaut is more like a static pageant.
The set is simple, laying stress where it should be, on the words. The lighting is similarly geared toward clarity. (Did it seem more dramatic in Toronto?) For all its faults, it's better Shakespeare than we're used to seeing in these parts.
The overall lesson is that a classic play, particularly one as tricky as "Macbeth," should be done only when a director has a clear, vital idea of how to do it, not because stars are available.
It is said that one of the more eminent of those Eminent Victorians, on seeing a performance of Shakespeare's "Macbeth," was heard to murmur, somewhat shocked: "So different from the home life of our own dear Queen."
For some reason I was reminded of this doubtless apocryphal story by the more stylized than animated production of "Macbeth," starring Christopher Plummer and Glenda Jackson which opened in its somewhat stately fashion at the Mark Hellinger Theater last night.
Of course, we all know what too many cooks can proverbially do to the best of witches' brews, and this "Macbeth" did perhaps have a somewhat overcooked look. It was dry and lacked juice.
As all gossip-reading critics know, the show has been in what is tactfully called "trouble on the road," and it is Zoe Caldwell, who has actually given her final imprimatur to the staging - which is now described as having "Original Direction by Kenneth Frankel" and "Additional Direction by Zoe Caldwell."
Only Caldwell gets a potted biography in the playbill, and as for the Third Man, the distinguished Shakespearean director Robin Phillips, who was brought in after Frankel left ship and before Caldwell came aboard, he seems to have been sunk without trace.
Whether all these shenaningans - there were changes with the set designs and the cast and other minor matters that need not concern us - affected the final result, who truly knows? Probably not even the producers, for sure.
However, this "Macbeth" does have something of the air of a work conceivably produced by the consensus of a committee rather than the vision of an individual. The setting by Daphne Dare and the dusky costuming by Patricia Zipprodt is as Spartan as one could imagine. It looks as though no economy has been spared.
Yet this platform-like approach, well lit by Marc B. Weiss, makes up something in clarity what it lacks in glamor. There may be nothing fancy, but there is nothing fussy either.
"Macbeth" is a frighteningly difficult play to present even adequately - much more so than that recognized bane of stagecraft, "King Lear." And the main problem is provided by Macbeth, the original anti-hero, a man of quality destroyed not even by random fate but by the mechanics of his own oe'erweening ambition.
How is one to convey the essential nobility of a singularly ruthless murderer and a politician who will stop at nothing to have his own way? Yet, at the same time, a man who has the scruples of a soul far more decent than his own.
Plummer shows us the soldier, the man of action with restraint and dignity. He is cerebral and reflective, a Cassius among Thanes. He is even capable of ironic humor, as witnessed by his dry, humorless chuckle when in his final balletic-like battle in silhouette with Macduff, he finds that his adversary is "not of woman born," and that his fate is thus sealed.
But here, as he did when he once played Antony, by chance with Caldwell as his Cleopatra, Plummer lacks some element of fire, of a man destined for hell. Partly as the result of Caldwell's excessively staid staging, Plummer looks destined for little more than his dressing room, preceded by a well-deserved curtain call.
No one could here call Jackson staid, and she plays Lady Macbeth as though she were expecting a larger part, which leads either her, or her director, to offer us such seemingly extraneous business as an attack of nausea for a first act curtain, and a letter-reading scene accompanied by such hand-trembling that it seems to have been caught in the wind.
Nor is she free of certain vocal mannerisms, such as a booming bleat on the word "clean" in a sleepwalking scene that takes spastic somnambulism to almost pathological lengths - there are times when the performance suggests it needs a psychiatrist almost more than a director.
Since her Artaud experiments with Peter Brook in London, even before the Charlotte Corday in Brook's staging of "Marat/Sade," which made her international reputation, I have been among Jackson's fondest admirers, and have the notices to prove it.
But this unsexed Lady Macbeth goes too far, and in the wrong direction, and when matched with Plummer's thoughtful, almost disdainful, underplaying, the two interpretations scarcely match and mingle. They could be in two different views of the play.
The supporting cast is very much that - supporting. It is certainly not bad enough to have satisfied the odd but exacting needs of Sir Donald Wolfit (who demanded little more of a production than an indifferently adequate cast and a good spotlight), but it is one of those Shakespearean stagings where the words seem to have more spears than there are spear-carriers.
I liked Alan Scarfe's vigorous Macduff, and there was a certain interestingly truculent quality to Randle Mell's Malcolm, but Jeff Weiss was not as garrulously good as one might expected in Hazlitt's all-important role of the Porter, and Paul Shenar's Banquo seemed more ghostly than strictly necessary.
The courage of putting a Shakespeare tragedy on Broadway for an extended run is itself to be commended, and from the healthy box-office advance - at the final matinee preview which I attended, as I left I spotted an encouraging line at the box-office - I sincerely hope this courage will at least pay off, if not win rewards.
The destiny of Macbeth becomes clear in the opening scenes of Shakespeare's play, once the witches chart out a grisly future that the hero seems all too willing to embrace. The destiny of ''Macbeth,'' as acted by Christopher Plummer and Glenda Jackson on Broadway, can be guessed even earlier. Open the Playbill, and one finds one of the season's zanier attributions of directorial credit. The production has ''original direction by Kenneth Frankel'' and ''additional direction by Zoe Caldwell.'' Is this what is meant by begging a question? If there was a true director of record for this ''Macbeth'' - a final arbiter of artistic decisions, a brave leader willing to be left holding the bag - he or she seems more elusive than Banquo's ghost.
And thereby hangs the tale. For all the heated debate about the liberties modern directors take in unorthodox stagings of Shakespeare, the fact remains that a single strong will, not a committee, must direct the plays if they are to leap from the page to the stage. Without leadership, the works quickly crumble into chaos or flatten into patchy classroom recitations. This is true even when the stars boast the classical expertise and talent of Mr. Plummer and Miss Jackson, even when the supporting cast is decent (as it intermittently is here), even when the text (some cuts aside) is treated with a fervent traditionalist's respect. While the assets of the production at the Mark Hellinger do produce scattered fine moments and keep chaos at bay, the lack of a unifying guiding hand is apparent before intermission and proves fatal thereafter. When a ''Macbeth'' becomes progressively calmer as the body count rises - to the point where the battle scenes are conveyed by static clumps of soldiers gently swaying their banners - it's safe to assume no one has his foot on the gas.
Mr. Plummer's thoughtful, beautifully spoken performance best illuminates the strengths and built-in limitations of the entire enterprise. This actor grapples arrestingly with his early bouts of conscience, as ''horrible imaginings'' send Macbeth's heart knocking at his ribs. Rather than cynically recapitulate the motiveless malignancy of his electrifying 1982 Iago, Mr. Plummer gives us instead an introspective poet - that rare Macbeth with whom we can identify along the path to evil. He half-smiles with embarrassment at his own ''vaulting ambition''; he closes his sad, hooded eyes while contemplating the virtues of the king he will assassinate. Though never a weak tool of Miss Jackson's driving Lady Macbeth, Mr. Plummer often works in a hush, knowing the low, steely music of his voice will lead the audience into his conflicted soul as surely as the illusion of a dagger will lead Macbeth into butchery.
Yet once blood begins to beget blood, the performance goes nowhere. Macbeth may have murdered sleep by murdering Duncan, his mind may eventually be plagued by scorpions, but his hellish insomnia and disintegration are expressed only by sporadic bouts of yelling. Mr. Plummer still delivers one chilling soliloquy late in the play - his Macbeth actually seems to become ''a walking shadow'' when expounding on life's meaninglessness in ''Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow'' - but the tragic hero's development from premeditating killer to mad nihilist isn't illuminated along the way. What should be the moving climax of a tragic performance exists without a context, as merely an actor's admirable but unaffecting set piece.
How could it be otherwise? The piecemeal production, which moves gamely along without ever finding a shape or tone, gives Mr. Plummer no base on which to build the hero's pathology. Shakespeare's text is full of creepy events and images to match Macbeth's inner state: as the usurper outruns reason and inverts the moral order, so nature in emulation lets loose the terrifying hurlyburly of stormy nights and supernatural visions, of shrieking owls and crazed horses. Some cheesy lightning-and-thunder effects and low-rent horror-movie music notwithstanding, the show at the Hellinger never creates the tempest-tossed atmosphere that should mirror Macbeth's spiritual turmoil. It typifies the production's abdication of theatrical point-of-view that its set, by Daphne Dare, is a rigidly symmetrical arrangement of light-wood panels and pillars. Discordant, murky and violent, ''Macbeth'' is anything but a play about spotlessness and order. Nor do the drab costumes and perfunctorily nightmarish lighting, by the estimable Patricia Zipprodt and Marc B. Weiss, relieve the antiseptic blandness.
Under these circumstances, Miss Jackson can't develop a role for which she seems ideally suited. Her performance, like Mr. Plummer's, doesn't grow much beyond our first impression of it - and the first impression is not nearly so arresting. That the actress can convey Lady Macbeth's Machiavellian ambition and ferocious anger is beyond doubt. But we're distanced from her potentially riveting personality by the self-consciousness of the actress's technique: the tremulous hands while reading Macbeth's early letter, the calculated use of raised arms and open palms in the ''Unsex me'' soliloquy, the carefully calibrated shifting of vocal registers and crouch to the floor in the sleepwalking scene. There's too little grief to this madness - it's the studied Brechtian insanity of ''Marat/Sade'' rather than a spontaneous passion rising from within. Miss Jackson's most persuasive grab for power tells us less about the machinations of 11th-century Scottish royalty than about the prerogatives of 20th-century show-business royalty: to ring down the first-half curtain, she upstages Mr. Plummer by lingering after his concluding speech to vomit ominously, if not visibly, at the banquet table.
The better supporting performances - inevitably in conflicting styles, usually operating in a vacuum - are Randle Mell's Malcolm, Paul Shenar's Banquo, Alan Scarfe's Macduff and Cherry Jones's Lady Macduff. With these actors and Mr. Plummer on view, the evening isn't as stultifying as the season's drearier Shakespeare offerings or calamitous in the manner of Sarah Caldwell's notorious 1981 ''Macbeth'' at Lincoln Center. Spectacularly wrongheaded Shakespeare productions, like brilliant ones, require that a forceful personality be in charge. This ''Macbeth,'' by contrast, is briskly, professionally impersonal. For all the reports of backstage carnage that preceded its arrival in New York, it's a remarkably bloodless account of one of the canon's bloodiest plays.