There's scarcely a more magical and potentially serene place to be than the Delacorte Theater, a location that would suggest Central Park as an inevitable (and perpetual) woodlands backdrop for the likes of A Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It, two Shakespeare plays in which Mother Nature does her bit to make the characters whole. But this year - and perhaps no less inevitably - the New York Shakespeare Festival is turning its parklands attention to the permutations of war. Two plays have been very deliberately chosen to focus our thoughts on an impulse that rages no less ingloriously today. The first is Macbeth, that short, stark tale of a military man whose mind is undone by murder: Liev Schreiber and Jennifer Ehle, Tony winners both, are the stars. The second - perhaps more surprisingly at this address - is Mother Courage and Her Children, Bertolt Brecht's account of one woman and her family during the Thirty Years War: a play that asks questions of human sacrifice that are all too timeless. Meryl Streep returns to the Shakespeare Festival to play Courage, five years after her highly acclaimed Arkadina in The Seagull, also in the Park.
The programming is the brainchild of Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Shakespeare Festival, who describes this summer's pairing of plays all but staring him in the mouth. Early in the planning, as he relates it, "I thought, let's do a comedy, but at a certain point I threw up my hands and said to myself, 'We have got to respond to the war and not pretend we're trying to balance a season.'" It didn't hurt that Eustis' home base, The Public Theater, has had an ongoing success with Stuff Happens, David Hare's bracing play about the Tony Blair-George Bush axis as glimpsed from the onset of a conflict in Iraq that continues on today.
Says Eustis, "It's as if, with Stuff Happens and these plays in the Park, we've got a triptych: three fantastic examples of how the theatre can respond to being a country at war. The fact that we're at war in Iraq feels to me, and I think to more and more of the people of our country, like the central political event of our time." Each play, however, refracts comparable issues in entirely different ways. "Stuff Happens is based on current history, so it's a literal response in many ways, whereas Macbeth is very different in the sense that - especially in this production - it delivers an almost allegorical sense of what happens to the moral fiber of a country that starts to live in a state of permanent war."
And what about Mother Courage, a play better known by reputation than by direct experience of it, at least in New York? (Gloria Foster headed a Public Theater production in the 1970s, in a version by Ntozake Shange.) Eustis is emphatic. "Aside from being the greatest play of the 20th century, it's explicitly a play about a continent at war, which for all intents and purposes means a nation at war." His encomium offers fighting words, but Eustis stands by the claim. "Absolutely it is the past century's greatest play, which is to say that Courage is a play that looks at what is to my mind the central question of the 20th century: Why do people behave in ways that are exactly contrary to their self-interest? That is the reality underneath all the genocide and barbarism of the 20th and now, I am sorry to say, the 21st centuries. And almost no one here has ever seen a great production." (In London, by contrast, the play gets done relatively frequently.) No artistic venture on paper means much without collaborators to kick start it into life, which is where Moises Kaufman and George C. Wolfe - the directors, respectively, of Macbeth and Courage - come in. Kaufman has been acclaimed for productions as diverse as Gross Indecency, The Laramie Project and I Am My Own Wife. But some scene work notwithstanding, he has never previously directed anything by Shakespeare; the time, he says, for Macbeth is now.
"If you think of theatre as a place where a rather personal dialogue can occur," says Kaufman, "how interesting that, in this situation, the most personal dialogue is about people in power in wartime, which is exactly why I found the play so fascinating at this time." The most compressed and distilled of Shakespeare's four great tragedies, Macbeth offers "an X ray into the innermost personal thoughts of people in power in wartime," says this director. "I always wonder whether our leaders feel remorse or guilt when they send us to war; is there turmoil in the decisions they make?" The point, then, hasn't to do with scenes of battle per se - although Macbeth deals both with issues of internal conflict in Scotland as well as the prospect of invasion from Norway - but with what one might think of as taking the psychic temperature of war: "In my mind, at least, it's definitely a play that deals with the politics of war and how do we make decisions to go to war and who does the war affect and what is the distance between the people who decide about the war and those who actually fight it; it creates a platform where we can examine the most personal choices of people in power and how it is that we go from war to war, and what does that say."
From offstage to onstage, and on to Schreiber, who this summer marks his fourth show at the Delacorte Theatre; previous ones include the title role three years ago in Henry V, a Shakespeare text that seems infinitely malleable in its views on war the more one sees it. (To some, Henry V is merely an exercise in jingoism, while others take it as an anti-war polemic.) The fact is, the Delacorte has dealt with war before, most notably in the Wars of the Roses trilogy in 1970 but also in Coriolanus, Troilus and Cressida, even the musical Two Gentlemen of Verona, which features a Duke of Milan brought to power on the back of a decidedly dodgy war.
Schreiber has been wanting to play Macbeth for some time, having previously acted Banquo in George Wolfe's downtown production, with Alec Baldwin in the title role. "It's such, it seems to me, a lucid play, and one primarily about conscience," the actor says, "which I think certainly brings a lot to bear on wartime politics: this is a man whose first act as king is to slaughter his best friend, and he goes on a murder rampage from there." The war is felt, to be sure, but mostly as the crucial backdrop to Macbeth's evolving anxiety and crippling doubts. "Before Macbeth had consciousness, he was happy to serve, but as soon as he was given consciousness, there was an awareness of his station and an ambition to be something that was his undoing," notes Schreiber.
If Macbeth is almost too self-aware, Mother Courage exists in an almost shocking state of self-denial: a survivor but at the most awful cost. "She's very brilliantly complicated; I love her," says Wolfe, who, of course, prior to Eustis ran the Shakespeare Festival, where many years ago he directed Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle under the late Joseph Papp's regime. "With Courage, the war is happening all around her: does she then have any options - is she victimized for it or does she try to make her way through it?" The result throws into bold relief a play, says Wolfe, "about what choices you would make," as presented in a new translation by Tony Kushner, a contemporary writer not exactly averse to asking difficult questions and embracing contradictions.
For Macbeth, Kaufman has chosen to set the play around World War I, while Courage, as Wolfe points out, was written "when the reverberations of World War II were incredibly vibrant." To that end, he's been looking at images from the Crimean War, World Wars I and II, the American Civil War, the artist Breughel, and Iraq. "What's disturbing is the commonality to the images," says Wolfe, which is another way of reinforcing Eustis's emphasis this season. Brecht's play, says Wolfe, "exists where it is exists," so in some way out of time. Or perhaps for as long as humankind retains its capacity for killing, which is doubtless to say for all time.
Matt Wolf is a New Yorker who has lived in London since 1983. He is London theater critic for Bloomberg News and the International Herald Tribune and a contributing editor of the new theatre.com Web site.