Monday 18 June 2018

Macbeth is well-cut treachery, gore & mayhem
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : Interpretations of Macbeth are as many as there are directors and performers to do the piece. The 2018 Bard show is by Chris Abraham in his local debut. (His regular day job is Artistic Director of Toronto's Crow's Theatre). While he confesses to "radical re-workings" of other Shakespeare scripts previously, this one he "wants to strip down to its muscular core...anchored in a very visceral approach to the language and staging...something like the conditions [its] first audiences might have."

Most critics focus on Macbeth as a greedily ambitious and prideful anti-hero for whom it's all about power. They link his murderous rampages either to his temptress wife and/or to fate as represented by Hecate and the three weird sisters. Director Abraham hints he may be thus inclined, too. This tumultuous tag-team comprises "two of the most terrifying and devastating tragic figures imagined by times chillingly amoral and at others superhumanly sublime in their suffering," he declares.

Lady Macbeth (Moya O'Connell) surveys the results of screwing one's courage to the sticking point on the face of husband Macbeth (Ben Carlson) .
Photo credit : David Cooper
There's another possibility, of course. As raised by Shakespeare himself in Act 5 Sc. 3 : mental illness. Just before her suicide, her husband describes her as beset by "the written troubles of the brain" and "perilous stuff that weighs upon the heart". Macbeth's doctor responds as if by rote reflecting society's attitudes over the years toward mental illness : "Therein the patient must minister to himself," he proclaims.

How it's all put together : The moral ambiguity on the cusp between Elizabethan and Jacobean times at the turn of the 17th century is caught by the witches a mere 12 lines into the piece, which -- to be unabashedly trite -- also aptly describes life in DC four centuries hence: "Fair is foul, and foul is fair / Hover through the fog and filthy air."

Interesting the obvious disconnect between this 1606 script and the day-to-day Christian schisms between Catholic Scotland -vs- Anglican England.  Eye of newt and tongue of dog are a far cry from bread and wine as the sacraments of Christ's body and blood after all. It is said wretched Puritanism resurrected demonology practices and rituals. And indeed the setting and plot appear to be ripped straight out of pagan druid times and traditions and climes.

The rough-cut wood-hewn functional two-tier set with virtually no stage furniture -- other than, briefly, an empty cradle belonging to the dead baby Lady Macbeth mourns -- allows the audience to focus fully on the dialogue and the insidious self-absorption of the grasping and desperate Macbeths.

What the Bard reveals to viewers right up-front : This imagining by Director Abraham is all about the script and the actors. Any doubt that this alleged anti-hero really is just plain old-fashion villainy writ large is betrayed -- I humbly submit -- only 190 lines into the piece when Macbeth soliloquies this aside : 

"Why do I yield to that suggestion / Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair / And make my seated heart knock at my ribs / Against the use of nature? Present fears / Are less than horrible imaginings / My thought, whose murder (sic) yet is but fantastical / Shakes so my single state of man / That function is smother'd in surmise / And nothing is but what is not."  

A more compelling bit of foreshadowing up-close-&-personal probably exists nowhere else in drama or literature.

Some say Macbeth grows "increasingly mad". Maybe not. Maybe consummately mad from moment one. Only more dedicated as time passes to his crescendoing paranoid evil, not unlike a certain Austrian corporal named Adolf. Has moments of doubt, needs some cajoling and badgering and threats from the good wife to steal a t.v. cliche. 

Speaking of "lady" Macbeth -- whether in mourning for a dead infant or no -- mere moments after the warrior's "horrible imaginings" of murder and mayhem she offers up how "The raven himself is hoarse / That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan / Under my battlements. Come you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here / And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full / Of direst cruelty."

So perhaps we should not over-analyze or complexify the obvious. This play is Shakespeare doing a horror-movie in the flesh and real-time. Which quite frankly makes it less the kind of dramatic exercise that Chris Abraham wants from us -- "Macbeth is a play that asks its audience to forge a unbique bond with its protagonists" -- than just plain outright shocking terror with a few psycho-drama moments thrown in. Like Banquo's ghost appearances at dinner and LadyM's "out damn spot" crash just before she suicides.

Production values that enhance the script : On opening night, it being Father's Day, my 25-year-old daughter accompanied me. She was wow'd by the consistency and polish of the actors' performances overall. No upstaging by any one character, no weak cast members at all. By the richness and genuineness of Christine Reimer's costumes, particulary for Banquo (Craig Erickson) and Macduff (Andrew Wheeler). 

By Owen Belton's tympany-thick and pounding soundscape plus its purposely atonal bagpipe skirls and screeches offset by friendlier bird trills and cricket chirps. By the excellence and realism of the fight sequences choreographed by Jonathan Hawley Purvis. By Gerald King's clever lighting and the incessant hazer fog accompanying the lights'  nuanced changes. I couldn't agree more.

Acting pin-spots : Arguably Director Abraham has commanded a production whose protagonists are maybe not Macbeth (Ben Carlson) and LadyM (Moya O'Connell) quite as much as it is a showcase for the Weird Sisters with whom I did indeed form a "unique bond". Kate Besworth as Witch 2 was shriekishly compelling, her voice and stage manner a mirror of her fright hair. But Emma Slipp as Chief Witch and Harveen Sandhu as the third voice in this menacing trio were no mere shadows or also-rans. The crowd jumped to its feet for them all at curtain. Their performances were utterly magnetizing.

But take nothing away in the least from Mr. Carlson and Ms. O'Connell. Each of their iconic soliloquies as they faced their certain fates at play's end were stunning. The 20-second pause between the announcement of Mrs. Macbeth's suicide and the start of her husband's "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" lament was brilliant. His rendering of those fate-filled lines of raw unabashed existential agony was perhaps the most unnerving delivery I have ever witnessed either on stage or film. Never has the word "idiot" struck harder.

Who gonna like : This is hard-core Shakespeare. Despite the infamous drunken Porter scene by Kayvon Khoshkam for a moment's wee diversion, there are no giggles to be had here. Evil is as evil does. We choose our persona, we command our life performances. 

Unless, of course, we are certifiably mentally unbalanced. Which I suggest these murderers may in fact just be, all the centuries of psychoanalysis and decrypting of their motives and ambition and greed and self-doubt to the contrary notwithstanding. That may make them more understandable but not particularly pitiable even when our better angels are asked to ramp up the empathy radar.

Folks looking for vehement and unremitting earnestness from their Macbeth "favourites" will find the 2018 Bard version of the show utterly exhilarating, embracing and breathtaking.

Particulars : Produced by Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival, Artistic Director Christopher Gaze. At the BMO Mainstage, Vanier Park. Performances : 28 shows between now and the September 13th closer. Schedule & ticket information @ Run-time 150 minutes including intermission. 

Production crew :  Director Chris Abraham. Costume Designer Christine Reimer.  Set Designer Pam Johnson.  Lighting Designer Gerald King.  Sound Designer/Composer Owen Belton. Head Voice & Text Coach Alison Matthews. Fight Director Jonathan Hawley Purvis. Associate Fight Director Jacqueline Loewen.  Production Stage Manager Stephen Courtenay.  Assistant Stage Manager Rebeca Mulvihill. Apprentice Stage Manager Jenny Kim.  Directing Apprentice Marie Farsi. Costume Design Apprentice Alaia Hamer.

Performers :  Lindsey Angell (Lady Macduff).  Scott Bellis (Duncan ; Doctor).  Kate Besworth (Witch 2; Fleance).  Ben Carlson (Macbeth).  Nicco del Rio (Macduff's son).  Austin Eckert (Ross).  Ben Elliott (Lennox).  Craig Erickson (Banquo).  Jeff Gladstone (Malcolm).  Kayvon Khoshkam (Sergeant; Porter; Seyton).  Moya O'Connell (Lady Macbeth).  Nadeem Phillip (Donalbain).  Harveen Sandhu (Witch #3).  Emma Slipp (Head Witch).  Andrew Wheeler (Macduff). 


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