Closing one’s eyes at the theatre is usually taken as a sign of fatigue, or boredom brought on by the performance. It can also be a useful exercise. With Shakespeare, especially, to focus on the sound is to gauge the success of the evening, even when a severe directorial concept has been applied.

With the Public Theatre’s Macbeth, free in Central Park until July 9, the deliberately blinkered approach would lead you to the conclusion that Liev Schreiber alone, in the title role, knows what he is doing. The verse-speaking is smooth, the baritone timbre sufficient to suggest the role’s standard depravity as well as the thwarted nobility that Schreiber tries to bring to the part.

Sound by itself, on the other hand, would yield a more severe verdict for Jennifer Ehle, the production’s Lady Macbeth. Her voice, denuded of visual cues, tends to fade like a mobile telephone in the mountains. And yet, eyes wide open, she kept compelling my attention. She looks spectacularly chic in Michael Krass’s costumes, the staging’s constant reminder that the director, Moises Kaufman, has chosen to set the Scottish play, variously, in the first half of the 20th century.

Schreiber and Ehle have been criticised for the fastidiousness of their interpretations. This is a story about murder and revenge, madness and superstition. How can that be conveyed without more obvious, melodramatic evidence of the darkness without as well as the demons within? Yet there is no shortage of blood, and the decaying palace set, designed by Derek McLane, corrodes in keeping with the narrative’s accumulating horrors. If this is not a memorable Macbeth, neither is it a standard-issue al fresco offering. The supporting players, drawn partly from the Public Theatre’s Central (Park) Casting, could be stronger, and Kaufman’s pacing slackens in the second half. But as an illustration of foul play this evening is first-rate. ★★★★☆

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