The Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s tenth staging of Macbeth proves conclusively just how timeless the Bard’s tale of power, murder and madness is and how much more there still remains to show, tell and hear many centuries after its creation.
Most assuredly, this is the loudest production ever mounted. Setting the action in “mythic mid-twentieth century Africa” opens up the seismic vault of machine guns, mortars, grenades, airplanes and helicopters that startled, surprised and occasionally upset the capacity opening-night crowd. But before the first volley was fired in Scotland’s struggle for survival, Michael Roth’s African soundscape (rhythm rich and infused with haunting tribal chants), whisked everyone to the dark continent in a manner that begged for more.
Director Des McAnuff (also at the helm in 1983) has brilliantly crafted this version, purposely employing a panorama of sound, light and delivery that makes it the first hit of 2009.
To balance the brutal carnage and ugliness of war, he’s assembled a cast that relies more on quiet understatement than full-cry declamation to bring the fabled speeches to life. Aided and abetted by set designer Robert Brill, lighting designer Michael Walton, costume designer Paul Tazewell and most especially media designer Dustin O’Neill, the eye is buffeted with a further array of visual extremes, ranging from the bare thrust-stage for many of the soliloquies (the words are more than enough to paint the images) to a covey of overhead video screens that bring twenty-first century state-of-that-art into the theatre and magnificently support the text in a manner Shakespeare could never have thought possible. Perhaps the most arresting of those, largely black-and-white (curiously, the few done in colour lacked the punch and grit of primal hues) projections, was the long shot of “Hang those that talk of fear” in the trees of the prophetic Birnam Forest. Seen in isolation, many viewers might well assume this to be an example of the Ku Klux Klan going about their righteous work.
With such an arsenal of sound and light to work with, McAnuff produces many spectacular moments of misdirection that add considerably to the tone of horror and magic. The transition from Banquo’s (Timothy D. Stickney was nothing short of superb) murder to the simultaneous banquet literally burst onto the stage with unexpected vividness and speed. As remarkable as that was, it only set the theatrical table for the comings and goings of the sudden ghost in a natural manner that required not an iota of computer animation or special effects.
Macbeth’s tormented madness was as real as his shift from heralded warrior to despotic dictator—eerily at one with the real-life henchmen that have brought unimaginable misery to Sudan, Congo, Somalia, Rwanda …
The delightfully Weird Sisters (Karen Glave, Amanda Lisman, Cara Ricketts) stirred up double trouble with crafty authority that teased their unwitting subjects into visions of unbridled power, fame and glory. Having tasted copious accounts of blood on the battlefield, Macbeth readily shifts his inspired ambition from defending his country to ruling it. Colm Feore takes the long view of the storied transition. Having committed murders of expediency with his own hands, he moves easily into the political realm of demanding his loyal subjects dispatch other rivals (including women and children: Sophia Walker’s Lady Macduff and son Kolton Stewart play their doomed scene with rage and anguish that speaks volumes for the real-life innocents slaughtered daily) and finally comes to the awful realization that with so many executions already on his hands, there’s no going back—what’s a few more now? Feore’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy is a masterpiece of understanding and inner turmoil. Somewhere in his troubled soul, he realizes the terrifying quest for peace can only be found after death. Yet, he still soldiers on: that’s his special skill.
Yanna McIntosh’s journey as Lady Macbeth is equally compelling. Her unquenchable ambition fuels her, initially, sceptical spouse’s resolve. Childless, they have never experienced bringing life into the world, only snuffing out those who dare to stand in the way of their deserved riches and position. Both performances are so well-crafted that Tom Rooney’s drunken monologue as their porter (what fun to have a “broker” knocking at the gates of hell just now!) garners not only the laughs and applause his comedic skills deserve, but offers a palpable respite to those who know that Shakespeare’s searing tragedy continues to play in too many venues of the world’s reality shows daily.
Much food for thought as Michael Ignatieff, another man who would be king, sat thoughtfully amongst the first-night patrons. JWR