Conleth Hill (Macbeth) and Frances McDormand (Lady Macbeth) at Berkeley Rep. Photo courtesy of
Conleth Hill (Macbeth) and Frances McDormand (Lady Macbeth) at Berkeley Rep. Photo:

The Broadway stars were shining on Berkeley for the opening of Macbeth at Berkeley Rep.

Conleth Hill, an Olivier and Tony award-winning stage actor, with distinguished screen and television credits, (Lord Varys in HBO’s Game of Thrones) stars as Macbeth, the once brave warrior destroyed by ambition, guilt and self-doubt. Frances McDormand, the celebrated Tony, Emmy and Academy award-winning actor, plays the forceful and fearsome Lady Macbeth, as well as one of the witches. Added to the star-studded duo is the talented, Tony award-winning director, Daniel Sullivan, who has previously directed Hill and McDormand in other New York Shakespeare productions.

With this glittering group, and with Macbeth being one of my favorite Shakespearean tragedies, my expectations may have been impossibly high, but in any event, they weren’t fully met. Don’t get me wrong — I liked the performance overall. It may come down to a question of style. I studied the poetry and oratory of Shakespeare, and so I enjoy a bit of the ham in Shakespearean actors. This production focused more on moving the plot along than on the emotion of the main characters and the affecting recitation of the soliloquies. In some scenes, the actors did capture the emotion and the eloquence of the language. Yet in many other instances, that passion was missing. At times it was difficult to hear the actors and understand the words they spoke, as lines seemed rushed and poorly articulated.

(l to r) James Carpenter (Duncan), Billy Eugene Jones (Ross), and Nicholas Pelczar (Angus) in Shakespeare’s Macbeth at Berkeley Rep. Photo courtesy of
L to r: James Carpenter (Duncan), Billy Eugene Jones (Ross) and Nicholas Pelczar (Angus) in Macbeth at Berkeley Rep. Photo:

Macbeth is the most-produced Shakespearean tragedy and for good reason. It combines the action of exciting battles, weird witches and violent murders with the introspection, doubt and madness that follows the slaughter of King Duncan and the others. Macbeth, outwardly a self-confident warrior, is ready to believe the witches’ prophesy that he will be Thane of Cawdor and then King of Scotland. Yet, inwardly, his ambition to be King vies with his insecurity, until his ruthless and manipulative wife goads him to action.

One of Conleth Hill’s finer moments is when Macbeth recognizes his mixed emotions prior to killing of Duncan (If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well/ It were done quickly.). Generally, he adroitly performed the role. But I would have liked to have seen more desire and hunger between Macbeth and his Lady. Shakespeare doesn’t provide a lot of time or language with which to establish their mutual commitment to love and murder, so it is up to the actors to supply it.

Frances McDormand’s portrayal of Lady Macbeth was convincing, despite it being a difficult and demanding role to play. At the start of the drama, she has no hesitation about murdering Duncan, so great is her ambition. Yet afterwards, she is consumed by guilt to the point of madness. That is a huge leap for an actor to make convincingly and McDormand was up to the task. The famous sleepwalking scene, (Out, damned spot! out, I say! ...), which is sometimes the subject of parody, was performed especially well.

Amid all the New York actors, it was a pleasure to see local luminary and Shakespeare pro James Carpenter, who ably played Duncan, the porter and the doctor.

The production of Macbeth looked terrific. Douglas W. Schmidt’s scenic design is right on and Alexander V. Nichol’s video design, is dramatic and effective. I just wish that The Scottish Play had been portrayed with more of the eloquence and intensity that befits a tragedy.

Macbeth is playing at Berkeley Rep through April 10, 2016. For information, extended dates and tickets, visit Berkeley Rep online.

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Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...