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By Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Thespians, a superstitious lot, insist that Macbeth should never be directly referred to inside a theater. If an actor accidentally forgets to call Shakespeare’s malevolent masterpiece “the Scottish play”, an elaborate ritual is required to prevent all hell from breaking loose.

But a theater critic can tell you the real reason Macbeth is cursed. Of all Shakespeare’s great tragedies, this is the one that most often disappoints onstage.

Macbeth on-screen doesn’t have the same jinxed reputation, thanks to Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa and Roman Polanski, all of whom successfully put their auteur stamps on the play. One of this fall’s prestige releases is Justin Kurzel’s film version starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard.

If the prospect of this latest Macbeth doesn’t fill me with dread, it’s not because I’ve finally gotten over the memory of Ethan Hawke mumbling his way through “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” on Broadway. Film, counterintuitively for such an outrageously theatrical work, has an advantage when it comes to meeting the play’s spectacularly fiendish demands.

To understand this, one must consider why Macbeth so often proves dissatisfying onstage. Runaway expectations are no doubt part of the problem. The play generates enormous excitement in theatergoers, many of whom (if I can extrapolate from my own experience) had their teenage imaginations set ablaze by Shakespeare’s audacious genius in this work.

King Lear may be harder to pull off because of its monstrous scale. Hamlet may be eternally in search of a lead actor who can contain the Danish prince’s contradictory multitudes. But theatergoers have, if not an awareness of these challenges, a keen sense that a degree of boredom is built into these prodigious tragedies.

By contrast, Macbeth, with its ruthless velocity and diabolical intrigue, seems like a theatrical slam-dunk. The great speeches, when first encountered on the page, demand to be recited. Although my high school English teacher forced us to memorize Hamlet’s most famous soliloquies, I came to know those of Macbeth and his conniving queen through speaking their lines aloud as I returned again and again to my favorite scenes.

God knows what my family thought hearing me ask the evil spirits who prey on mortal thoughts to “unsex me here” while ostensibly studying for exams. But suffused with occult mischief and murderous mayhem, Macbeth demands to be read with histrionic relish.

Theatrical flamboyance, however, isn’t tantamount to dramatic effectiveness. Macbeth’s challenging character trajectory, moving from a decorated war hero to a spiritually deadened killing machine, would have been frowned upon by Aristotle, who had fixed views on this sort of thing. Drama critic Kenneth Tynan summed up the quandary brilliantly in a 1955 review of Laurence Olivier’s Macbeth at Stratford-upon-Avon: “Instead of growing as the play proceeds, the hero shrinks; complex and many-levelled to begin with, he ends up a cornered thug, lacking even a death scene with which to regain lost stature.”

For Tynan, Olivier miraculously succeeded in holding our interest by zeroing in on “the anguish of the de facto ruler who dares not admit that he lacks the essential qualities of kinship.” This is but one approach to playing the usurping Thane. There is no assured path, but an actor must somehow clarify Macbeth’s slippery interior journey. The moral makeup of the man — all that is tragically lost — is revealed through sidelong glimpses of hesitation, wavering and remorse.

These subtle shifts are easy to overlook onstage amid all the witchery and bloodshed. Film’s ability to glide from the supernatural panorama to the eyes of the protagonist is a boon for a play in which the outer world uncannily mirrors the unconscious life of the protagonist.

Macbeth has always struck me as Shakespeare’s most psychological tragedy. But it’s not psychological in the introspective way of Hamlet, in which the melancholy Dane unpacks his soul in soliloquies.

Macbeth is distinguished by his bravery, not his intellect. A soldier accustomed to demonstrating his mettle with deeds, he acts out rather than analyzes his inner drama.

He begins caked in the filth of war but aglow in victory. Duncan, admittedly not the best judge of character, calls Macbeth “valiant,” “noble” and “worthy,” and though Duncan will be slaughtered by him, he is not mistaken in identifying those attributes that set his general apart on the battlefield.

Shakespeare draws associations between the language, imagery and special effects of the play and the secret goings-on in Macbeth’s mind. The evil that exists in the world is too real to be dismissed as a figment of his fervid imagination. But the wicked cabal only throws into relief the wayward desires already pulsing within him.

It must be remembered that no demon proposes regicide as the way to realize the witches’ prophecy. In demanding her husband “catch the nearest way,” Lady Macbeth makes explicit what Macbeth has already been contemplating: the murder of Duncan. When he first encounters the weird sisters and hears that he shall be king, his buddy Banquo asks, “Good sir, why do you start and seem to fear / Things that do sound so fair?”

Macbeth’s twitchy reaction is often eclipsed onstage by the spectacle of the ghastly witches. But an alert actor will recognize this as an opportunity to illuminate an embattled conscience.

Close-ups can help us get inside a character desperately trying to escape his own tortured mind. But it is necessary to follow the unspooling thread of Macbeth’s humanity. Too often in the theater the final third of the play seems like a mechanical march of evil. Shakespeare scholar L.C. Knight compares Macbeth at the end to a “bear tied to a stake.” The difference, of course, as Knight recognizes, is that Macbeth has tethered himself.

There should nevertheless be pathos in that self-imprisonment, a sense that he has become more and more ensnared in an evil that no longer permits him to choose a better course. (It helps to cast an actor younger than middle age in the role, as the sin of vaulting ambition is more poignant under 40.) But this is rare emotion in Macbeth productions, the vast majority of which have left me numbly waiting for the head of the “dead butcher” to be carried out.

The most successful encounters I’ve had with the play have curiously both come from Japan: Yukio Ninagawa’s 2002 staging at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Kurosawa’s film adaptation, Throne of Blood, which was clearly a major influence on Ninagawa. Both works ritualize Macbeth into a stylized allegory without sacrificing any of the visceral horror.

Shakespeare’s language is lost, but a harrowing visual poetry fills in the gap. The theater is still the place where the play’s verbal richness can best be honored. There’s dark power in the seductive words of the Macbeths, whose loathsome deeds are conveyed in irresistible rhetoric. But tapping that sorcery in the theater has left scores of actors and directors badly burned.

Welles made great use of his prowess as a stage actor to motor his low-budget affair. Polanski left us spellbound with an atmosphere thick in eroticism and appalling menace. But the willingness of film directors to unseam the play and thereby expose the dramatic skeleton may be what has allowed a notable few of them to elude the curse on-screen.

©2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Marion Cotillard and Michael Fassbender in “Macbeth.” (Photo courtesy StudioCanal/TNS)

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Eric Holder

The failure of major federal voting rights legislation in the Senate has left civil rights advocates saying they are determined to keep fighting—including by suing in battleground states. But the little bipartisan consensus that exists on election reform would, at best, lead to much narrower legislation that is unlikely to address state-level GOP efforts now targeting Democratic blocs.

“This is the loss of a battle, but it is not necessarily the loss of a war, and this war will go on,” Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general and Democrat, told MSNBC, saying that he and the Democratic Party will be suing in states where state constitutions protect voting rights. “This fight for voting rights and voter protection and for our democracy will continue.”

“The stakes are too important to give up now,” said Damon Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which for years has operated an Election Day hotline to help people vote. “Our country cannot claim to be free while allowing states to legislate away that freedom at will.”

In recent weeks, as it became clear that the Senate was not going to change its rules to allow the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to pass with a simple majority, there have been efforts by some lawmakers, election policy experts, and civil rights advocates to identify what election reforms could pass the Senate.

“There are several areas… where I think there could be bipartisan consensus,” said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, in a briefing on January 20. “These areas are all around those guardrails of democracy. They are all about ensuring that however the voters speak that their voice is heard… and cannot be subverted by anyone in the post-election process.”

Becker cited updating the 1887 Electoral Count Act, which addressed the process where state-based slates of presidential electors are accepted by Congress. (In recent weeks, new evidence has surfaced showing that Donald Trump’s supporters tried to present Congress with forged certificates as part of an effort to disrupt ratifying the results on January 6, 2021.) Updating that law could also include clarifying which state officials have final authority in elections and setting out clear timetables for challenging election results in federal court after Election Day.

Five centrist Washington-based think tanks issued a report on January 20, Prioritizing Achievable Federal Election Reform, which suggested federal legislation could codify practices now used by nearly three-quarters of the states. Those include requiring voters to present ID, offering at least a week of early voting, allowing all voters to request a mailed-out ballot, and allowing states to start processing returned absentee ballots a week before Election Day.

But the report, which heavily drew on a task force of 29 state and local election officials from 20 states convened by Washington’s Bipartisan Policy Center, was notable in what it did not include, such as restoring the major enforcement section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was removed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. It did not mention the Electoral Count Act nor growing threats to election officials from Trump supporters.

“This won’t satisfy all supporters of the Freedom to Vote Act, but this is a plausible & serious package of reforms to make elections more accessible and secure that could attract bipartisan support,” tweeted Charles Stewart III, a political scientist and director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab. “A good starting point.”

The reason the centrist recommendations won’t satisfy civil rights advocates is that many of the most troubling developments since the 2020 election would likely remain.

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