Macbeth! All shouting! All the time!
Okay, they’re not shouting all the time, but there is a heck of a lot of hollering in director Chris Abraham’s take on the Scottish play and all of that volume keeps us on the surface of the text.
Moya O’Connell’s Lady Macbeth is a case in point. The first time we hear her speak, she is reading a letter from her husband—as if she were the town crier. As she is seducing Macbeth to murder King Duncan and clear his own way to the throne, Lord and Lady embrace—and she shouts in his ear. Don’t get me wrong: O’Connell fills the role with feeling but, under Abraham’s direction, she does so on such an operatic scale that it’s alienating.
In his program notes, Abraham says, “Macbethis a play that asks its audience to form a unique bond with its protagonists” but, for me, Ben Carlson’s Macbeth is also distancing. He’s loud, but strangely lacking in vitality. Yes, Lady Macbeth has to egg her husband on, but Carlson Macbeth doesn’t give her much to work with. The pronounced passivity of this characterization discourages engagement.
That said, the most interesting moment in Carlson’s performance is one of weakness: just before a hallucinatory dagger leads Macbeth to Duncan’s bedchamber, where he will stab him to death, this Macbeth falls to his knees, overcome by indecision. The response is surprising and revelatory. And, later in the play, Carlson persuasively delineates the vortex of Macbeth’s denials and doom.
Still, for a long time, the general showiness of this production is boring and I’m not the only audience member who felt that way. A couple of times folks near me applauded before we reached the intermission—eager for a break, apparently. And, after the interval, several people in my row didn’t return.
That’s a shame because things do pick up. There’s a scene between Duncan’s son Malcolm (Jeff Gladstone) and a nobleman named Macduff (Andrew Wheeler), for instance. In their exchange, Macduff tries to convince Malcolm to raise an army to depose Macbeth. Gladstone and Wheeler play this scene as a conversation. At least at first, nobody roars. They listen to one another. There’s nuance.
And there’s one aspect of this mounting that works all the way through: the witches. In Abraham’s staging, the witches emerge from the horror of battle: Witch 2’s wails of sorrow and terror turn into demented laughter and that madness sets the tone for the weird sisters. These three (Emma Slipp, Kate Besworth, and Harveen Sandhu) delight in toying with Macbeth. I particularly enjoyed Besworth: her Witch 2 is unhinged, her mouth smeared with blood, her body wracked by emotion.
The witchy scenes work because, unlike most of the passages in this staging, they’re surprising. You don’t expect to see Witch 1 (Slipp) rolling about kicking the ground because she thinks Macbeth’s stupidity is unbearably hilarious and you don’t expect to see visions of Banquo’s children appear as shafts of light. (Macbeth is afraid that Banquo’s progeny rather than his own will inherit the throne.) We’ve got Gerald King to thank for the lighting design.
Physically, this Macbethis handsome. Christine Reimer’s (mostly) Elizabethan costumes are darkly sumptuous—Lady Macbeth’s gold velvet gown, Macbeth’s coronation robe dripping in animals’ pelts. Pam Johnson’s harshly elemental set references the Globe Theatre in its pillars and levels. And, like The Globe, which is an outdoor space, it allows in a fair bit of natural light. Here, that means that we get a generous view of False Creek and the West End. It’s odd to see modern boats sailing by but the way the exterior brightness deepens the interior gloom is intriguing.
Owen Belton’s sound design features the unearthly wail of the hurdy-gurdy, which is appropriately unsettling. It also features a lot of doom-laden drumming and I got almost as tired of that as I did of the yelling.
MACBETH by William Shakespeare. Directed by Chris Abraham. A Bard on the Beach production. In the Mainstage tent at Bard on the Beach on Sunday, June 17. Continues in rep until September 13.
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