At Boston Arts Center through Aug. 16

A pastime in which many people love to indulge is the argumentation that arises from the question, "If you were marooned alone on an island for a long time and could have only one such-and-such, which one would you choose?" Were I confronted with such a choice from the complete plays of Shakespeare, I should pick Macbeth to have on my shipwrecked island (the wit would of course state a preference for The Tempest).

This is not to imply that I consider Macbeth Shakespeare's greatest work. Othello is his greatest play (Macaulay went so far as to call it "the greatest work in the world"), or at least his grandest; it is his most masterfully constructed, and for once the quality of the writing never sags from the very highest level. King Lear is the most broadly scaled, intense, and heart-rending. Hamlet is the most ingenious, kaleidoscopic, and--as no one ever tires of saying--inexhaustible.

Yet Macbeth wields a unique and ineffable power over mortal senses--and this despite the fact that the text we have is relatively corrupt and possibly incomplete (only the extremely early Comedy of Errors is shorter; and Hamlet is nearly twice as long). If I were a better critic I might perhaps be able to verbalize this power. Those who want the most keen, profound, and sometimes conflicting discussions of this play (and the other great tragedies) should turn to the writings of A.C. Bradley and G. Wilson Knight.

At any rate, Shakespeare created his weirdest world--universe, I should perhaps say--in Macbeth. And its words somehow penetrate to the very marrow of one's bones and take possession of one's whole being; Shakespeare here reaches in us the three states he has plumbed so deeply in his characters: the conscious, the sub-conscious, and the unconscious. The last two are states that we today really understand little better than do the characters in the play; the people in Macbeth are constantly baffled (what other play contains such a large proportion of questions?), and so are we. Much of the fantastic effect of Macbeth is due to the uncanny atmosphere of fear the Bard created--and this is a play about fear much more than about the "vaulting ambition" that our schoolteachers emphasize, even though Macbeth and his wife both attempt to explain their drive by invoking the inadequate word "ambition."

A great deal of the play's aura of horror is captured in the current Cambridge Drama Festival production, directed by Jose Quintero. This is young Mr. Quintero's first Shakespearean assignment, although he has wrought several nearmiracles with modern American works. And he has attacked Macbeth with freshness and, at times, audacity. He has given us a sufficiently fast-moving production of Shakespeare's fastest-moving play. The theatre quivers with excitement as characters swirl about the set, and race up and down the aisles to envelop the audience in the action (though this is carried somewhat to excess).

The show is visually gripping; and much of the credit for this must go to David Hays' lighting, which is as inspired and effective as I have seen in a long time (and it contributes so much that I urge you to attend an evening rather than a daytime performance). Hays is not afraid to keep many of his light levels low, which is right since so much of the play takes place either at night or under dark clouds. Macbeth's hallucinatory ghosts at the banquet are effected entirely by lighting: this is also a wise decision, for Banquo (and then Duncan?) should no more walk in and sit down at the table here than should an actual dagger be lowered from the ceiling in an earlier scene.

If there is any color appropriate to offset the general grays and blacks, that color is red. One scene ends with the upstage area bathed in red, which brings to mind the blood with which the play is drenched (there are over a hundred references to blood in the text alone). In the settings, for which Mr. Hays is also responsible, the color of blood makes several appearances: in the castle hangings, in the royal carpet, in the two thrones (though these last seem to suggest the red lacquer of China rather than the rough furniture of medieval Scotland). Marie Day has designed suitable costumes; and Richard Baldridge has devised musical and sound effects, for percussion or bagpipes, that are more primitive than one normally finds in a Shakespearean production--but then I suppose Macbeth's milieu was quite primitive.

I cannot postpone forever some remarks on the performance of the title role, here undertaken by Jason Robards, Jr. Truthfulness obliges me to state that herein lies the chief weakness of this production. Now Robards is one of our most richly endowed native actors, and his performances in 20th-century American works have been unbeatable. But he is as yet vocally unequipped to cope with the demands of Shakespearean language. This is not surprising in view of the fact that his only previous experience with the Bard was a brief go at Hotspur last summer in Canada. Good classical diction is not achieved overnight, and some never master it after a lifetime.

Robards does, nevertheless, have his effective points here. He has grown his own heavy beard, and looks like Macbeth. He is able to convey much of what is in Macbeth's mind through his facial expressions, especially his eyes. Many of his movements are laudable, as when, in his prebanquet conversation with his wife, he prowls restlessly around the stage like an animal, which is what he is gradually becoming (later Macduff even calls him "hellhound").

Vocally he is best when he has a short, forceful phrase to deliver. After murdering Duncan, he is told by Lady Macbeth to return to smear the grooms with blood; he strikes to the heart when he cries "I'll go no more!" and, shortly after, "Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst!" And on witnessing the Weird Sisters' parade of apparitions, he makes the most of that horrible, anguished shout, "But no more sights!"

The longer speeches, however, trip him up. He fails to convey all the sense, the rhythm, and the grandeur. He has not yet wholly mastered the difficult art of breathing properly, so that he often pauses at the end of a line when the thought demands that he go right on to the next one.

Siobhan McKenna's Lady Macbeth is a most impressive and consistent performance. For her first entrance she makes a long, grand sweep, with lengthy red tresses flowing down her green gown. Before she has uttered a syllable, we know that this is a woman to be reckoned with, a woman of enormous inner strength. She is able to go on to make it clear that she does not covet the crown just for her own sake but wants her husband to be king at any costs because she is so much in love with him. She introduces a novel twist at the end of her first conversation with him: instead of making her whole concluding speech at once, she says the first part, exits nearly off stage, and then, thinking he needs a bit more peace of mind, turns to deliver a kind of over-the-shoulder afterthought, "Leave all the rest [pause] to me."

In their next conversation together, Miss McKenna makes one serious mistake. It arises from the second of two noteworthy features of the play's language: (1) no other of the Bard's works contains such a high percentage of words or forms that occur only once in the author's entire output (these go under the technical name of hapax legomena); (2) no other of his works contains so large a proportion of lines that are susceptible of multiple readings, sometimes even to the point of totally reversing the meaning.

The error in question is a matter of just two words, but two important and crucial ones. Lady Macbeth is trying to overcome Macbeth's reluctance and to bolster his courage to murder Duncan. He protests, "If we should fail--," and she retorts with "We fail"--two words with at least three possible interpretations (each with more than one inflection): (1) "We fail?"; (2) "We fail!"; and (3) "We fail." Mrs. Siddons, history's most celebrated portrayer of the role, finally settled on the third; and Miss McKenna does the same. But this is the most inadmissiable solution. Lady Macbeth must not toss the words away with shoulder-shrugging resignation. She cannot allow her husband to believe that failure is even possible; she must thunder these words, or at least put them over with the intense force of incredulity.

Miss McKenna handles Lady Macbeth's tricky deportment at the banquet excellently. When the guests have gone, she has a few words with Macbeth, and then leaves for bed. She climbs up a long flight of stairs and moves, oh so slowly and wearily, along the second story. We see then that the strain of the banquet has been too much for her, that she is beginning to crack, that she is no longer in full command. We sense that something dire will befall her; and indeed this is the last time we shall see her in a conscious state. This exit contrasts wonderfully with her first entrance; and the two form a bracketing frame for her entire life on stage as a complete human being.