The Top Four Reasons to See Macbeth.
By Kel Pero
Some of us are honest enough to admit that after we’ve seen a few productions of Shakespearean classics, we become a bit hard to please.
Notwithstanding the beauty and power of the language or the drama of the story, different productions can take on a sameness, often weighed down by the very things that make them enduring—that language, that story.
I was tentative going into the 2016 Stratford Festival production of “Macbeth.” I expected it to be enjoyable, but in a way that wouldn’t necessarily differentiate it from other versions of the play I’ve seen over my many years of both acting and theatre-going.
I was, as the saying goes, pleasantly surprised.
Of course this “Macbeth,” directed by Antoni Cimolino, features the usual high production values one expects from the Festival, as well as the level of polish and professionalism in terms of general execution. But there are four particular features of this “Macbeth” that make it something I strongly recommend you see.
1. The witches.
At first I felt a pang of disappointment upon seeing them, fearing that this production would be just another ugly-old-ladies-in-fright-wigs take on the witches.
I was wrong.
Cimolino and his team make the most of their resources and technology to make the weird sisters flashy and scary—but they do more than that, including the addition of a small twist at the play’s end about which I’ll say nothing more than to remark that the director clearly wants to remind us that tragedies may show us the end of a particular, bloody story, but they can never show us the end of human turmoil.
2. The Macbeths themselves.
and Ian Lake as Macbeth.
I may be in a minority on this point, but the thing I found most compelling about this lord and lady was how ordinary they seemed.
The lady is not some horrifically fascinating termagant, but a young, sympathetic-seeming woman whose ambition is (mis)fired by opportunity. Macbeth himself is a solid, likeable soldier, not the weakling as which he’s often presented.
One can actually see the road down which they barrel, with all its horrible consequences, unfolding for them in the way it might, and has, for any number of restless, grasping couples whose personal dynamic and thoughtlessness have driven them over a precipice. Add the supernatural and social forces of the world in which Macbeth takes place, and you’ve got something really compelling and strangely, as the term now goes, “relatable.”
3. The use of—gasp!—silence.
Virtually every production of “Macbeth” in at least the last thirty years has leaned heavily on the sexual tension between the lord and lady—with varying results (that kind of stuff is hard to conjure if it isn’t organic between the two leads). This often takes the form of the two of them running at each other and doing their best to appear to be tearing off one another’s clothes for a good round of celebratory shagging—within the confines of the stage, which will not actually allow that (at least in any production I’ve seen).
The current Stratford production, however, does something that is, in my opinion, far more revolutionary, and erotic: it has the two greet each other with affection, but then later continue in silence as Macbeth washes at a basin while his wife sits and observes. This goes on for what seems in stage time like an eternity—and I mean that in a good way.
and Ian Lake as Macbeth.
In a theatre climate in which it often seems that directors and actors alike are terrified of silence—What if we lose the audience? Don’t they all have the attention spans of cornflakes?—this scene actually allows the audience to absorb the weight of the actors’ actions, their gaze, the atmosphere around a husband and wife together again in their home after long absence from each other. I felt a surge of joy at this scene; it was, to me, enormously effective.
If I were given the power to change one thing in theatre right now, I would reintroduce the quiet moment, the thoughtful stop, the line delivered with deliberation; I find far too many plays, and productions of Shakespeare in particular, are devoid of it. It’s a loss that’s worth remedying. The pause isn’t just for Pinter.
4. The naturalistic delivery of soliloquys.
It’s hard to get out from under Shakespeare’s language at times.
We’ve built such a structure around it in the past century or so in particular that even on stage, when it should be at its most mobile and natural, it can seem more monument than anything. I’m not a fan of traditional park-and-bark speech delivery, which I think pays greater tribute to this monumental angle than to the fact that Shakespeare’s characters actually use his language “to speak and convey things”—sometimes just to themselves.
I was delighted to see that this production (or at least the performance that I saw—these things can change as a production matures) favours this naturalistic approach; when I saw it, I could believe that Macbeth was saying “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” alone, desolate, despairing. This and the embrace of silence were the most refreshing elements of this production for me.
There’s good reason for the critical acclaim with which “Macbeth” has been met this season. Your experience of it may turn out to be quite different from mine, but I can say with confidence that you’ll enjoy it.
Photography by David Hou.
By Kel Pero
Kel Pero holds a PhD is in English literature, and has has taught in the disciplines of English literature and theatre at the university level. She frequently does lectures and program notes for Canada’s Stratford Festival, and was a founding member of Ottawa’s Plosive Productions.
Kel’s a proud member of ACTRA and CAEA, and is the owner of KMP and Associates.
Click for more about Kel.
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