Conleth Hill and Frances McDormand appear in “Macbeth” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. (Courtesy

Conleth Hill and Frances McDormand appear in “Macbeth” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. (Courtesy

Star-studded ‘Macbeth’ never fires up

The new Berkeley Repertory Theatre production of “Macbeth” opens on a particularly bleak scene – a blasted tree on a barren heath, with a bloodied body tied to it. With the three Witches of Shakespeare’s tragedy circling, a savage, supernatural force rips the tree up by the roots.

It’s a potent image, and, sadly, nothing else in director Daniel Sullivan’s production quite comes close to it. Although Sullivan proves skilled at putting the play across with clarity — no small feat — the raw power that fuels this timeless tale of murder and madness is mostly in short supply.

This “Macbeth” is one of the season’s most hotly anticipated productions, chiefly because of its leads: Conleth Hill in the title role, and Frances McDormand, who, in an interesting bit of casting, plays both Lady Macbeth and one of those Witches.

Hill, best known as Lord Varys on “Game of Thrones,” is an articulate Macbeth, but his performance suggests a middle-management type in over his head; his great soliloquies especially lack gravitas. The character’s “vaulting ambition,” and his fierce prowess as a warrior — described in detail in the play’s first scene — barely register.

McDormand – a Tony, Oscar, and Emmy award winner – makes Lady Macbeth a dutiful wife. For much of the opening night performance, her portrayal felt a bit recessive, never fully commanding the stage until her final mad scene.

Sullivan fills out the cast with capable performances. Christopher Innvar, the production’s vigorous Banquo, doubles as Siward, while James Carpenter — one of the Bay Area’s finest Shakespearean actors — does a deft triple turn as King Duncan, the drunken Porter and the Doctor.

Korey Jackson plays Macduff with understated eloquence. Rami Magron and Mia Tagano, along with McDormand, limn the Witches’ scenes with synchronized movement.

For the most part, this “Macbeth” benefits from Sullivan’s striking stage pictures. Scenic design by Douglas W. Schmidt and lighting by Pat Collins feature dense, fog-swept exteriors and clammy-feeling spaces inside the Macbeths’ castle. Meg Neville’s costumes would be at home on “Game of Thrones.”

But not everything works. Video by Alexander V. Nichols lends the production depth, but the outsize projections in the Banquet scene are simply distracting.

Dan Moses Schreier’s musical score and sound design supply an effective layer of otherworldly chill, although the repeated use of bird cries begins to border on parody.

The play should be the thing, but alongside the underwhelming performances by Hill and McDormand, the designs often threaten to swallow this “Macbeth” whole.

Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Where: Roda Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley
When: Most Tuesdays through Sundays; closes April 10
Tickets: $35 to $145
Contact: (510) 647-2949,

Berkeley Repertory TheatreConleth HillDaniel SullivanFrances McDormandMacbeth

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at

Just Posted

Gov. Gavin Newsom, show here speaking at the City College of San Francisco mass vaccination site in April, faces a recall election due to anger on the right over his handling of the pandemic, among other issues. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Why Gavin Newsom’s popularity could work against him in the recall election

Top pollster: ‘We’re not seeing the Democrats engaged in this election. And that may be a problem…’

Passengers ride the 14-Mission Muni bus on Friday, March 12, 2021. (Jordi Molina/Special to S.F. Examiner)
Transit officials fear Free Muni pilot could hurt already-strained service levels

Supporters say fare cuts could increase ridership, help low-income residents

The vacant property at 730 Stanyan St. in the Haight currently houses a safe sleeping site for the homeless. <ins>(Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)</ins>
Affordable housing project on former McDonald’s site delayed as city adds units

The start of construction on an affordable housing project on the site… Continue reading

Visitors read a notice hanging on the Polk Street entrance to City Hall on Thursday, March 26, 2020, shortly after the building was closed. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
City Hall reopening to the public on June 7 after long closure due to COVID-19

San Francisco will reopen City Hall to the public on June 7… Continue reading

Historic streetcars are undergoing testing on The Embarcadero to prepare for their return to service on May 15.<ins></ins>
What to expect for Muni Metro’s relaunch on May 15

Significant service restoration includes downtown subway tunnels and historic streetcars

Most Read