Now in his 29th season at the Stratford Festival, Antoni Cimolino has proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that he is the best Shakespearean director of the present era. Having worked both sides of the footlights for three decades, there isn’t much he hasn’t seen, imagined or acted—particularly on the storied Festival Theatre stage.
His indentures long ago over, the truly fantastic result of this season’s first night of Macbeth is that it seems so fresh, innovative and engaging rather than a commendable view of the Bard’s treatise on blind ambition run amuck.
The staging is superb. The growling thunder (courtesy of Thomas Ryder Payne) and shock lighting/lightening (kudos to Michael Walton) aurally and visually backed Cimolino’s vision to a T. They combined most effectively when the body count continued to rise (most especially the slaughter of the Macduff clan and the decapitation of the dastardly villain of Scotland), where other directors would capitalize on the shock value of gore. (In the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock: letting the viewers fill in the nasty bits is far more effective—and likely more gruesome—than having a blood bath in full, ugly view.)
The magical presentation of the three witches (Brigit Wilson, Deidre Gillard-Rowlings and Lanise Antoine Shelley—a delectable trio most foul) was especially chilling; their silent encore was nothing short of theatrical brilliance and full-circle closure.
The ghostly appearances of Banquo (Scott Wentworth in first-class form) and Duncan (Joseph Ziegler at his regal best) were a marvel of stagecraft: the former being in-your-face, “I dare you not to see me” spectacularly contrasted by the latter’s “Where on earth did he come from?” Directors-in-training are advised to study the techniques.
The pacing was as relentless as it was effective: the first half vanished in the twinkling of a bloody coup. The humorous moments, most notably Cyrus Lane as the Porter, were allowed a few precious moments of self-indulgence; in other hands a risk, but here a masterpiece of balance.
Ian Lake made for a credible Macbeth, perhaps lacking the nuance of Michael Fassbender’s film treatment earlier this year, but artfully managing a convincing descent into total madness. As his wife, Krystin Pellerin grew with every scene and after a few more performances will more than likely plumb the subtle depths of She Who Must Be Obeyed with frightening believability.In one of life’s marvellous coincidences, having just finished my first-ever reading of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, the master’s dictum that “straightforward warfare is the norm but surprises win the battle” took on double meaning. The witches’ foretelling that Macbeth has nothing to fear “until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him" is—in its doing—a military surprise that carries the day. But beyond the text, Cimolino’s decisions to surprise cast, crew and audience alike by fearlessly sharing his observations, insights and “aha” moments since 1988 has paid huge dividends for which the opening night crowd was demonstrably thankful. JWR