THREE TALL MOTHERS
Three Tall Women is Edward Albee's Pulitzer Prize winning play about the stages of a woman's life. From optimistic youth to jaded middle age to controlling senior dowager, it takes three actresses at the top of their game to portray Albee's mosaic of female evolution.
Those critics who find it necessary to connect a great writer's work to his life have written that the women in Three Tall Womenare all Albee's mother - Albee was adopted as a baby and later was rejected by his mother when he told her that he was gay. But the women in Three Tall Women are more like Martha (Albee's portrait of a wife on the brink of madness in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf) than any real person could be.
Before we delve further into the play, let's get the magic out of the way. As the curtain rises, we see three women whom Albee has given the names A, B and C in the script but who have no names in the play. "A," played by Glenda Jackson, is a 90-something (she claims 91 but "C" insists that she is 92), rich old lady. Sitting in the splendor of her opulent bedroom, she is a mother not easy to like as she complains about everything and spews forth racist comments. "B" is the middle-aged caretaker played by Laurie Metcalf who makes light of A's tart comments. "C" is a young attorney, played by Alison Pill, who is there to straighten out A's tangled finances. The play seems to be about a woman at the end-stage of her life when everyone is waiting for her to die. Suddenly, A has a stroke and becomes incapacitated as the lights black out.
When the lights come back up (no intermission) we are in a world where even what we see is hard to explain. The elegant bedroom of the previous Act is now mirrored by an upstage bedroom whose upstage wall is all mirrors reflecting the identical twin sets. It appears that "A" is lying motionless in the mirrored bedroom while a young man comes to visit her. He is identified as A's son whom she has rejected for unstated reasons.
Now, the three woman return but they have been transformed. They are the same woman but at different stages of her life - young, middle-aged and old. They (or she) has married a man whom they belittle by claiming that he has a small penis. But, he is rich and so they put up with hubbie's petite penis and seek pleasure elsewhere. "C" cannot believe that her future is to be the eye-candy on the arm of short, ugly, stupid man, but "B" explains that it's worse - hubbie's a short, ugly, stupid man who cheats, as all men do because .... they are men.
Three Tall Women was Albee's second most revered play, but it was rarely staged well and rarely less than very confusing - until now. Director Joe Mantello has created a world in which Three Tall Women can finally be seen for what it is - Albee's crowning achievement as America's finest playwright of the second half of the 20th Century. Miriam Buether has designed the perfect set for this look into the kaleidoscopic life of a modern woman. Each woman thinks that she is living in the best of times for a woman: young and optimistic, middle-aged and experienced or old and wise. Ann Roth has clothed each actress so as to reveal her character - in the case of Jackson's "A" in regal purple throughout. Paul Gallo and Fitz Patton have echoed the magical set in their respective light and sound designs.
The end of the play brings to mind the scene in Orson Welles' Lady In Shanghai when the protagonists shoot it out in a House of Mirrors. What is real or perceived or true, is constantly changing in this slippery world of dying hopes and troubled dreams.
Glenda Jackson won 2 Oscars before 'retiring' to become a Member of the British Parliament. Unlike in America where movie and TV stars become politicians, Jackson is now a politician who has returned to acting. She commands the stage like few have done - except for Laurie Metcalf who keeps up with Jackson in an amazing pas de deux. Alison Pill is as good as she has ever been. But all three do something that Three Tall Women demands of its actresses if it is to be a successful production - balancing the multiple lives of a real woman on the slender thread of a theatrical performance, a thread like life itself that disappears as it happens into memory. It is a play that rivals the great portraits of women in movies such as Sunset Boulevard in ballets such as John Cranko's Eugene Onegin or in art such as Picasso's portraits of women. Albee's Three Tall Women lives, to paraphrase "A" , in the here and now. And that is the best place to experience a play - and to live a life.
John Golden Theater 252 W. 45th St. NY, NY 212-239-6200
Runtime 1 hr. and 30 min
Written by Edward Albee; Directed by Joe Mantello
Cast: Glenda Jackson, Laurie Metcalf and Alison Pill
Performed by the National Theatre of Great Britain
National Theatre Live in conjunction with Fathom Events brings filmed plays to movie theatres. Later this year, you can see The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night and Frankenstein (with Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch each playing the monster and Victor Frankenstein on alternate nights). Its most recent offering is Macbeth.
Is a play that is filmed, a play or a film?
In the waning days of Judy Garland's career, in 1967, she appeared on Broadway in a show entitled, At Home at The Palace. She was in poor voice, with little of the phenomenal vocal pyrotechnics displayed on her 1961 album, Judy at Carnegie Hall. In William Goldman's excellent book, The Season, he looks at the 1967-68 Broadway season. Concerning the Garland show, he heard critics wondering if it was just a singing engagement or really theatre. Goldman concluded that it must be theatre because it sure as hell wasn't singing.
And so I conclude that The National Theatre's Macbeth must be theatre because it sure as hell isn't a movie. There is something about filming a theatrical performance that rarely brings out the best in a play or the actors in it. I have only seen one play filmed as a play that was successful, Vanya on 42nd Street, but it was not really a filmed play. Vanya was filmed by Louis Malle (Pretty Baby, Atlantic City, My Dinner with Andre) from a translation of the Chekhov play by David Mamet and the screenplay by Andre Gregory. It was filmed without an audience and as a 'rehearsal.' It worked mainly because it tried to be as simple as possible.
Macbeth has been filmed more times than, as people use to say, Carter has little liver pills. Not only has the play been made into many movies and TV shows, but it has been adapted so many times that the variations are as numerous as the murders in the original play (among my favorite Macbeth-inspired films is the 1955 Joe Macbeth directed by Ken Hughes and starring Paul Douglas and Ruth Roman as the deadly couple).
In this National Theatre version, the setting is a post-civil war country where people struggle to stay alive. The 'costumes' are all patched together odds and ends, some body armour is held together with shipping tape. The set is dominated by a large ramp and many of the entrances and exits are made on this ramp. Visually, the ramp serves to break up the action and to add a dangerous, sweeping element to the bombed out world depicted by the other set elements.
While it is an excellent idea to set this political play in a post-civil-war modern country, the execution falls short because of many unwise choices. For example, King Duncan (Stephen Boxer) is dressed in a red suit and shoes which make him stand out (the intention I assume) but not in a good way. He looks like a pimp who suddenly fell into this dark world from a 1970's drug dealers' convention. After Macbeth kills him (are there spoilers in Shakespeare?), Macbeth starts wearing red but not as a complete ensemble as Duncan did (maybe the war left only a limited amount of red cloth in the country and two complete red suits were not available).
Various kinds of blades sans hilts are on display as killing devices along with a variety of knives (there are no guns presumably because this is Great Britain and not Florida - ok, just a joke, but there really are no weapons other than swords and knives in this production) but the killing that takes place is about as real as the killing in a Lone Ranger episode. Again, back to the killing of Duncan, when Macbeth, after the foul deed, hands the bloody knives to Lady Macbeth and she drops them to the ground, these knives that killed three men make the sound of one hand clapping. Worse, some murders are committed with what appear to be pen knives. While blood and gore do not a great battle scene make, there has to be some attempt to make the violence palpable.
All of this is to say - the performances did not distract me from noticing the botched incidentals. It is never easy to make a filmed play come alive, but it is impossible when the actors are DOA. Macbeth (Rory Kinnear, not to be confused with his father Roy Kinnear who died in an accident while making a film in 1988 - Rory is best known for playing Bill Tanner in the James Bond films Quantum of Solace, Skyfall, and Spectre,) is portrayed as a hail-fellow-well-met who nervously laughs when the three Witches tell him of his soon-to-be-announced promotion and eventual crown. He alternates between being aghast at the idea of murder and aghast at the idea of being a coward, giving us a poster performance of OCD as, everywhere he goes, he sees people he has murdered or ordered murdered. Lady Macbeth (Anne-Marie Duff) starts out with assassination anxiety and ends with her own OCD symptoms (those bloody hands!). Both leave themselves nowhere to go but into a full Don Knotts mode.
When, at the end, Macbeth is confronted by Macduff whose family he has had all murdered, they engage in the kind of fighting that professional wrestlers would be ashamed to perform. He disarms Macduff and appears invincible based on the three Witches' promise that no man of woman born can kill him. Then (another spoiler alert!), Macduff reveals he was 'untimely ripped' from his mother's womb. Macbeth shows courage in spite of this news that 'palter with us in a double sense; That keep the word of promise to our ear, And break it to our hope.' He is done in by that pen knife that so many of these warriors carry with them.
And back we go again to Judy. When she did Meet Me In St. Louis, the songwriters wrote her a great song to sing to a sad Margaret O'Brien. The only problem was that it was so sad and maudlin that it made Judy cry whenever she sang it. She told the writers she needed another song and they said, 'why, it makes you cry it's so good' and Judy replied - it's not me who is supposed to cry, it's the people in the audience. And I would say to the National Theatre - it's not the actors who are supposed to shake in their boots, it's the audience.
'Macbeth' Starring Rory Kinnear
Olivier, National Theatre, London; 1200 seats; £50 ($70) top. Opened, reviewed, March 6, 2018. Running time: 2 HOURS, 35 MIN.
PRODUCTION: A National Theatre production of a play in two acts by William Shakespeare.
CREATIVE: Directed by Rufus Norris; Design, Rae Smith; lighting, James Farmcombe; sound, Paul Arditti; costumes, Moritz Junge; music, Orlando Gough; movement, Imogen Knight.
CAST: Nadia Albina, Michael Balogun, Stephen Boxer, Anne-Marie Duff, Trevor Fox, Andrew Frame, Kevin Harvey, Sarah Homer, Hannah Hutch, Nicholas Karimi, Rory Kinnear, Joshua Lacey, Penny Lacey, Anna-Maria Nabirye, Patrick O'Kane, Amaka Okafor, Hauk Pattison, Alana Ramsey, Beatrice Scirocchi, Rakhee Shamar, Laetitia Stott, Parth Thakerar.