Wednesday, 20 June 2012

A good and capable Macbeth

Director Miles Potter’s version of the play sets a journeyman’s eye upon the script and its challenges, no question. There is yeoman service given to the schizoid setting, plot and characterization that all feed into one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. While skilled in execution in most respects, the production did not find me leaving the tents doing fist-pumps while gushing “Yes! Yes!”  More Salieri than Mozart, one might say.

 Signal : for the first time in all the years I’ve attended mainstage Vancouver performances, not even one audience member rose to give the cast a standing-o on June 19th.  Typically it’s 50% or more in this city.

In parsing the play, most observers point to what they see as the contrasts between the Macbeths as civilized gentry who then succumb to witches’ portents, ambition, motive-&-opportunity all of which “conspire” to “make” them evil.
I say from Moment 1 Macbeth’s ego augered him down into his bedrock essence. Of the bearded sisters’ initial prediction he would be King of Scotland, Macbeth muses immediately : “If good, 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 yet is but fantastical / Shakes so my single state of man that function / Is smothered in surmise / And nothing is but what is not.”  [Aside : The line “Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair” could not be improved upon – in 100 lifetimes by 100 different writers – one iota.]  Point is Macbeth’s brain conjures the prospect of ugly mischief to achieve his destiny from the get-go.

Throughout, Bob Frazer’s catch of Macbeth vacillates, as the script does. Robust man-of-action braggadocio toggles with introspective soliloquies that are both poetic and edgy.  Still, I think I was looking for some psychic consistency, some fundamental underlying menace that doubts and feints can only masque : a  17th century warrior Nixon. 

For her part, Lady Macbeth (Colleen Wheeler) displays nefarious inclinations from her first soliloquy, too : right off she says her husband lacks the “illness” that should attend to ambition. “Thus thou must do, if thou have it / And that which rather thou dost fear to do / Than wishest should be undone.” She knows only brute force will win Macbeth the throne. And she lets us know right smartly she’s his go-to gal, his bloodlust seductress.

British homeopathist Anna Thorley had occasion to write about these characters, thus : “The fundamental problem with the Macbeths was that they were joined at the hip, undifferentiated as a man and woman and frighteningly dependent on one another. She was identified with masculine attitudes, manifesting in aggression and cruelty; he was cut off from his manhood, completely unable to withstand the pressure she put upon him. Both were estranged from feminine sensibilities, intent on manipulating their outer situation with no regard for the consequences for the soul.”  Anyone familiar with yin/yang concepts would have no argument there. Once Macbeth “murders sleep” neither of them find that sweet peace in their bed or in their heads any longer.

 So. Back to Bard. Here is my cut at it – bad pun intended, given the numerous swordfight scenes, all of which were well *executed* thanks to swordsman coach Nicholas Harrison.

Highest kudos go to sound designer Murray Price who, when Director Potter told him he wanted a “claustrophobic, internal, edge of mania type of closeness” in the soundscape, Price simply delivers up a Grammy.
The liner notes say Macbeth’s backdrop comprises “sounds that we don’t so much hear, but feel. They resonate in our bodies or our subconscious…”  Between the leitmotif of ravens squawking and owl scrills, there was a sub-sub-woofer trend reminiscent of the 2010 World Cup vuvuzelas that buzzed away constantly. Once or twice I was uncertain whether the other overhead commotion was from Price’s recordings or helijet ambulances screaming toward St. Paul’s – but whether by design or accident or both, all the ambient audio tension worked wonderfully well.

The setting with its moorish screen backdrop cutting out English Bay plus the many mists and smokes pumping out effluent throughout enhanced the dark and equivocal mood of the play immensely.  For its part the gothic arch set had nothing particular to recommend it but was functional, especially the subterranean entrance that was used to good advantage.

Blocking and stage business – other than the fight scenes – I found somewhat fixed and ploddy, not unlike what one sees in opera. Except for Frazer’s excellent interpretation of the Banquo ghost scene – on balance perhaps the best performed scene in the play.  In it Frazer showed terrific animation and true existential angst as he sustained Emotion #4 of 4 – fear – the other three being mad, sad, glad.  Wheeler was ever-so-equal to Frazer in this scene with her sardonic dismissal of his manhood, both in word and action.

Duncan Fraser as Doctor (“More needs she the divine than the physician”) / 2nd murderer / Old Siward gives each role his all with both overt and subtle effect.  Bernard Cuffling as King Duncan could not have been more endearing or elegant.  But special mention has got to be reserved for John Murphy’s excellent porter – not just in the knocking / Gates of Hell /dipsomania scene, but throughout. True consistency of character and comic menace – very fun indeed.

Two clangers : Lady M / Wheeler when she shrieks after the Banquo-ghost episode : “Stand not upon the order of your going / But go at once!” Rosie O’Donnell could not have executed it worse. Well, maybe.

Bob Frazer’s “Out, out brief candle…” turn should have been Sisyphus grimly facing the rock, yet again, but this time nearly opting for suicide himself – consumed by core visceral pain, not just situational distress. It came off as an aloof philosophical daydream.  Still, his lingering silent pause at the end of this most renowned and familiar speech of the play almost compensated.

In sum, this is Bard. This is summer(?) in Vancouver. So go, dress v-e-r-y warmly, avoid the popcorn (in its 23rd season as well) and enjoy.  “Yeoman” and “professional” all the way through with a few moments of blue spark.  I may have wanted more or different, but this Macbeth is worth your shekels regardless. 


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